The increasing political activity of Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov should worry the Kremlin and the opposition.
Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov speaks to journalists in Chechnya's provincial capital Grozny, Russia, Dec. 28, 2015. Photo: AP
For a very different take read: "What's really behind Ramzan Kadyrov's incendiary comments?"
Some analysts interpret Ramzan Kadyrov's recent insults of Russia’s non-systemic opposition as an attempt to attract the attention of the Kremlin in light of the deepening economic recession, thereby preventing the possible reduction of budget subsidies for Chechnya. Such assessments, however, grossly underestimate the scale of threat posed by the head of Chechnya.
Kadyrov does not go on the defensive. He attacks. He does not react. He provokes. Chechnya is too small for him, and he has long since moved up to the national level and has been trying to expand his dominion by using the only methods at his disposal: threatening to harm or silence his enemies and those whom he perceives as his adversaries.
Kadyrov rose to the national level back in the 2000s. While his opponents were dying in Chechnya, he remained a regional activist, and when his Chechen foes were destroyed not only in the republic, but also in Austria and Moscow, for quite some time it was seen as the manifestation of internal squabbles. But after Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in Moscow in October 2006, the murders ceased to be an exclusively Chechen affair.
The murder of Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, that occurred in the proximity of the Kremlin established Kadyrov’s claim for entering the top tier of Russian politics that has the authority to decide between life and death for its opponents.
Recommended: "The Kadyrov scandal: Fear and loathing in Chechnya"
Finally, Kadyrov's promises to treat the non-systemic opposition as the enemies of the people indicates that he has become used to acting the part of the supreme arbiter, second only to Putin. In other words, he is successfully competing for the top spot. The Russian President, regardless of what he thinks of himself, cannot publicly proclaim that his opponents are the enemies of the people that deserve nothing but death. As for Kadyrov, not only can he say such things, but also his actions routinely give weight to his utterances.
Are Kadyrov's words in any way related to the unraveling economic crisis? Yes and no. "No" because his desire to expand sits at the heart of the regime that he created, a typical oriental tyranny armed with modern weapons and enjoying Internet access. "Yes" because political leaders of this kind feel most comfortable at the times of crisis when institutes stop working and the talking is done by machine guns. The only thing that Kadyrov lacks is the transformation of an economic crisis into a political one. Then his readiness to shoot will be in particularly high demand.
Why then for all his determination Kadyrov is still locked within Chechnya and only sporadically raids the country that has been paying him an ever-growing tribute year after year? The answer to this question is that Kadyrov’s charisma clearly worries not only Russia's non-systemic opposition, but also the authorities.
The Kremlin needs Kadyrov as a guarantor of stability in the Caucasus and possibly the last trump card to be played if new massive disturbances spill over to the streets of Moscow. There are, of course, doubts about the sustainability of this stability and its potential for bringing about a bigger commotion. Besides, it is not a given that the Chechen "Savage Division” will support the regime if public unrest grows into an open armed confrontation.
Anyway, so far Kadyrov has been able to get away with everything. The investigation of the murders of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Kadyrov's rivals, brothers Yamadaev, never reached the point of discovering the mastermind behind these crimes, even though it looks like the perpetrators did not really go into hiding. The same can be said of the investigation of the murder of Nemtsov. In this case, the driver of a member of Kadyrov's inner circle has already been declared the organizer and commissioner of the crime.
Still, such murders do get solved, and the people who actually pull the trigger either have already been sentenced or are currently under investigation. This sends a clear message to Kadyrov: kill whomever you want back home in Chechnya, but your reach does not extend beyonds its borders.
Putin needs Kadyrov or believes that he does, but understands all too well that Kadyrov’s “get out of jail free” card for murdering whomever he pleases poses a threat to Putin himself. If Kadyrov goes unchecked and is permitted to kill (or just threaten to murder) wherever, whenever and whomever he chooses, Russia will be ruled by him, not Putin.
It seems that this is the reasoning behind Russia’s state-run TV channels ignoring the rally in Grozny that virtually half of the city's adult population was made to attend and that the entire population of Chechnya, including babies, the elderly and women in labor, were keen on participating, according to official Chechen media.
Kadyrov's enemies inside the Kremlin include the so-called power ministers, i.e. top officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Federal Guard Service (FSO) and the Ministry of the Interior (MVD). They have reluctantly accepted the fact that Kadyrov completely pushed them out of Chechnya, but invading their territory, the European part of Russia and especially Moscow, is a completely different matter.
The head of Chechnya disrupted their monopoly in the protection racket. Initially, he was only working with Chechen entrepreneurs who live outside the republic. It has long been rumored that Kadyrov is taxing them. However, there is some indication that he soon felt that the scope of his operations was too modest, and gradually he started expanding to include non-Chechens with the assistance of ethnically Chechen law enforcement officers employed in Moscow, Nemtsov's killers included.
These actions meant trespassing upon the area that up to that point had been the uncontested property of the federal agencies, who can blackmail business owners by threatening to arrest them, while Chechens use death as a deterrent, and that is a much stronger motivator. So the federal agencies will also be doing their best to stop Kadyrov's advance beyond the land of his forefathers.
Still, while Kadyrov can strike a deal with Putin and the federal agencies, that strategy is not going to work with his main target - the representatives of the non-systemic opposition.
The parliamentary opposition (Communist Party of the Russian Federation, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Fair Russia party) and various pro-government patriots (Rodina and Patriots of Russia) are ingratiating themselves with the head of Chechnya by slavishly approving his escapades against the non-systemic opposition. Kadyrov is simply feared because any criticism of him will result in serious consequences.
As for non-systemic liberals, they have nothing to be afraid of anymore. Most likely, there will not be any physical violence, for Putin and the federal agencies will prevent that not out of respect for human rights, but to arrest Kadyrov's expansion. And politically the liberals have nothing to lose.
Nevertheless, public criticism of Kadyrov may help the non-systemic liberals attract some nationalist voters who are displeased with the Chechen leader's and his combatants' insolence and do not see a political force that could control this malcontent. Nationalist parties that share these beliefs have not been legally acknowledged by the Ministry of Justice, and those that have been legalized are fully controlled by the Kremlin.
Will the non-systemic opposition, namely the People's Freedom Party "For Russia Without Lawlessness and Corruption" and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny (without the Yabloko party that excused itself by proclaiming the unacceptability of forming an alliance with nationalists), capitalize on this opportunity? We shall see after the September elections to the State Duma.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.