October 26, 2016

Inside the rise to national prominence of Chechnya's Ramzan Kadyrov

Contrary to popular opinion, the growing power of Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov is not a new phenomenon. The question, though, is how far Moscow will let him go with his national political ambitions.


Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov before President Vladimir Putin's 2015 Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly in the Kremlin. Photo: Sputnik

If sociologists were to rank the most active media personalities in Russia, the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov would definitely claim one of the top three spots. Without fail, every month his name is featured in the most popular news reports and graces the front pages of major Russian newspapers.

Actual newsworthy events vary greatly, and Kadyrov's part in them might be that of a newsmaker or a circumstantial figure. Consider just a few of the most recent events that have made headlines: public gatherings in Grozny under the “I am not Charlie” slogan, marches in support of the head of Chechnya and his policies, the “Chechen trail” in the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, scandals pertaining to relations with neighboring regions, and initiatives on the prosecution of terrorists' relatives.

From the end of January to the beginning of February, Kadyrov verbally assaulted the Russian opposition by calling its representatives the “enemies of the people,” and this attack, along with his choice of words reminiscent of the Stalin era, launched a broad discussion in the media and on social networking websites. Following Kadyrov's logic, virtually any criticism (especially political) of the Russian authorities should be qualified as anti-government activity and interpreted as a betrayal of the country's national interests.  

The Kremlin's official response added fuel to the fire: Even though there was no overt support or commendation, Kadyrov's crude judgments were not condemned. Liberals saw this as a de facto expression of solidarity with Kadyrov's approach.

This determined the shift in the analytical focus, and from this point on, the Chechen leader's initiatives and his political stance will be considered within the general context of the Russian reaction to the Euromaidan in Kiev, the incorporation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine – the three events that have created the biggest gap between Russia and the West since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Confrontation with Washington and Brussels clearly led to the increase in anti-Western and anti-liberal sentiment both among the Russian leadership and the public. There are a few reasons for that, including the disillusionment in attempted integration with the West that Russia has consistently pursued over the last two decades and Washington's reluctance to treat Moscow as its equal, especially when discussing the security issues in the post-Soviet space.

How Kadyrov's media prominence started

Still, Kadyrov’s position among Russia's most prominent media personalities is old news. It started way before the Ukrainian crisis and the rise of skeptical attitudes towards the West within Russia. Kadyrov's position cannot be analyzed outside the North Caucasus context, the pacification of Chechnya and its integration into Russian legal and political systems.

The situation in Ukraine and current confrontation between Moscow and Washington provided Kadyrov with the opportunity to solidify his influence, even though it remains to be seen whether he is going to succeed. Still, the head of Chechnya started on the path of becoming a politician with national influence long before 2014.

Chechnya is the only unrecognized post-Soviet breakaway republic steered back under the control of the central authority. Moreover, it also became the model of loyalty to the federal center. Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, publicly called himself “the foot soldier” of the Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is actively promoting the personality cult of the head of the Kremlin. In the meantime, the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections indicate that in Chechnya the ruling United Russia party and Putin have some of the highest support levels of all the Russian regions. 

But there is also the other side of the coin. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Russian leadership tested several models on Chechnya. The first one involved complete withdrawal from Chechnya and giving separatist leaders full control of the territory. Under the second model, Moscow resorted to the use of force in an attempt to restore control over Chechnya and completely destroyed its infrastructure.

The third strategy tried to “Chechenize” the local authorities, i.e. delegate considerable powers to the republic’s elite. The Russian government applied this tactic in 1995-96 with the Doku Zavgayev administration, but the mechanism showed its full potential only in 2002-03, when several groups pledged their loyalty to the Kremlin and the party of Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of the current Chechen leader, came out on top. But the father of Kadyrov was killed in a terrorist attack on May 9, 2004.

Making sense of the "Chechenization" model

After his death, actual power (made official in February 2007) rested with his son. The “Chechenization” format assumes that the republic maintains a special political regime that is loyal to the Kremlin. In reality, Chechnya operates as an autonomous region in exchange for its outward loyalty and peace. All these factors determined the special administration type currently in existence in Chechnya. Shamil Beno, a well-known expert and prominent public activist, labeled it the “military-political administration model.”

This administrative style minimized the terrorist threat and turned Chechnya into a model of North Caucasian stability, but it also elevated “battlefield administrators” to the federal level.

Also read: "What's really behind Ramzan Kadyrov's incendiary comments?"

How did that happen? First and foremost, these figures played a key role in helping Russia regain control over a dangerous and turbulent area. This way, Moscow made the local elite dependent on its generous money transfers, while the Chechen authorities also gained leverage on the Kremlin through the display of a pacified Chechnya. Who else could it be? Officials representing the Presidential Administration of Russia never discuss the issue in public, but it is definitely being addressed privately.

Kadyrov has latent ill-wishers in various official departments and structures. Some are just jealous of his popularity and success, while others disagree with his idea of Chechnya's interaction with Moscow, dislike his close relationship with Putin, or are wary of Kadyrov's aspirations to partake in international politics and meddle in national security issues.

But every time those who seek to depose Kadyrov stumble upon the lack of real (vs. hypothetical) alternatives to the current head of Chechnya. There is virtually no secular opposition. Indeed, it has small chance of thriving under the close authoritarian military-style administration. So it does not exist. In neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan, moderate Islam is quite prominent, but it does not play a significant part in the Republic of Chechnya, mostly for the same reasons.

So the only possible opposition could rise from radicals representing the former Caucasus Emirate or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), which is banned in Russia. Technically, there are also the Ichkerian, Chechen national separatists, but their leader Akhmed Zakayev fled the country and does not have a way to influence the situation inside Chechnya.

If that is the case, the replacement of the troublemaker Kadyrov becomes a very unlikely prospect, especially since he managed to alter Russia's attitude towards him over the years. In his early years, Kadyrov pushed for the “special region” status for Chechnya, which pitted him against other federal subjects and public opinion. Hence, we see the growing popularity of the “Stop feeding the Caucasus” slogan, which became extremely popular in 2013.

That, however, did not get in the way of the special treatment of the Chechen authorities by the Kremlin and the unprecedented independence of the local elite. Then the Ukrainian crisis broke out, and the confrontation with the West began. And Grozny's active support of Moscow made even certain Russian nationalist groups accept Kadyrov for one of their own.

Russia’s social services have been reporting the decline in anti-Caucasian and anti-Kadyrov sentiment over the past two years. Thus, today we do not just perceive Chechnya as a special region, but also see its leaders that are trying to integrate into the Russian elite as people invested with privilege.

And if the elite these days seeks anti-Western, conservative, and protectionist attitudes, for Chechens all these trends will look like something put under a magnifying glass. It is just that nowadays the system of inner checks and balances (liberals vs. conservatives) shifted in one direction. But the very demand shaped by “battlefield administrators” is nothing new.

Recommended: "Why the West should care about Kadyrov's latest political escapades"

The current situation provides the Chechen leadership with new opportunities, but it would be wrong to assume that the attained integration of Chechnya into Russia guarantees stability. When Moscow agreed on the “Chechenization of power,” it drastically diminished its options.

There are a lot of problems with Kadyrov, and there are virtually no ways to remove him using the scenario that worked for Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, or North Ossetia. And that is the case precisely because of the lack of alternatives.

But the main issue is the following: Up to what point will Grozny's initiatives be accepted or supported by the Kremlin? The growing political activity of Kadyrov obviously tests the patience of the federal center. How much longer will Moscow stand by and watch the erosion of its monopoly on law enforcement, foreign affairs and national security? That is the question.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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