Ramzan Kadyrov is at it again. The combative and capricious warlord-president-autocrat of Chechnya has already called for the political opposition to be tried as traitors or locked in psychiatric hospitals, and posed with a snarling dog while his loyal speaker of the regional parliament posted messages saying that it was ready to sink its teeth into critical journalists and politicians. He has now “Instagrammed” a video showing Mikhail Kasyanov, the liberal leader of Russia’s PARNAS party and, it seems, émigré democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, through a sniper’s crosshairs.
The first and easiest explanation is that just as his dog Tarzan is a metaphor for Kadyrov’s wrath, Kadyrov represents the manifestation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s. According to this line of argument, the Chechen president—who was, to use a word that featured heavily in the inquest report on Alexander Litvinenko’s assassination in London, “probably” behind or at least supportive of last year’s murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov—is the Kremlin’s deniable hitman, leg-breaker and all-round intimidator.
And yet there is little evidence to suggest any great enthusiasm for Kadyrov’s latest antics in Moscow. The liberal political opposition poses no real threat, and Kadyrov is in the almost unique position of being equally loathed by them, the security apparatuses who watch them, and the kleptocratic elite who ignore them.
Although the Kremlin has taken a very cautious line with Kadyrov’s thuggish theatricals—official spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to reframe his threats as being solely against “those whose activity is outside the law and who are ready to break it”—there hasn’t been any suggestion that they are welcome, or a harbinger of some crack-down on the opposition.
It is rather more likely that Kadyrov is carrying out his usual tactic of asserting his autonomy in the guise of protesting his loyalty. He may indeed be, as he put it, Putin’s loyal “footsoldier”, but in the name of crushing a secessionist rebellion he has been able to create a virtually independent Chechnya, in deed if not in name. Furthermore, he has managed to get Moscow to pay for it: more than 80 percent of the Chechen budget comes from the federal treasury. While much goes to the grandiose reconstruction of Grozny, a Kadyrov vanity project that has seen the centre of the city transformed with towering (if often part-empty) skyscrapers and a huge mosque named after his father, much also gets skimmed off the top for his own use and distribution to his cronies.
If one of Putin’s favourite tactics with the West has been to stir up trouble and then present himself as the man who can help resolve it—or else make it much worse—then in many ways this is also Kadyrov’s approach to Russian politics. He certainly seems to have convinced the Russian elite that he is an indispensible guarantor of stability in Chechnya, who would also be avenged by his supporters if ever abandoned. Furthermore, Putin himself seems to have a personal bond with Kadyrov, not least given their shared taste for macho photo-opportunities.
Nonetheless, times are hard and budgets are getting tighter. Crimea has already eclipsed Chechnya as the primary regional target for federal subsidy. In that context, Kadyrov’s sudden campaign of intimidation-by-Instagram ought not to be taken wholly at face value.
On the one hand, it is almost certain that Kadyrov, a man whom witnesses have described as getting his kicks from electrocuting prisoners, and who once decided to chastise his sport minister in a boxing ring, would have no qualms about being unleashed on liberal oppositionists. But the Kremlin hardly lacks for muscle, and in the run up to the September Duma elections, the state is looking to split the liberals, not galvanise them. Indeed, a Levada poll found that a majority of Russians across the board disapproved of Kadyrov’s rhetoric, with only 15 percent of the proportion saying they respected him, compared to 35 percent one year ago.
Primarily, Kadyrov is probably making his case—in characteristic idiom—that Moscow needs to keep supporting both him and Chechnya. A massive rally he held in Grozny last month (the local authorities claimed up to a million attendees…which would be three quarters of the Chechnyan population) was, after all, more a show of his personal grip on the republic than any statement of loyalty to the Kremlin.
But why is all of this happening now? By 5 February, the Russian government has to unveil its new “anti-crisis plan” to respond to its lasting economic problems. Regardless of whether or not this is a bold initiative or yet another exercise in minimal-activity-maximum-hope, this will start a new round of cost cutting, which must look at federal subsidies to the regions. After all, the regions pass all revenues to Moscow, and then Moscow decides what to send back.
Almost all of the regions are in serious debt, especially because of Putin’s 2012 “May Orders” which set local governments a series of unrealistically ambitious targets. The precise level of debt and extent to which this is bearable varies: Crimea is in surplus, for example, while Novgorod defaulted on a debt to state-owned VTB bank last year. This is shaping up to be one of the crucial battle grounds of 2016, but why is it so important?
Russia’s legislative elections, like the one taking place this September, are not real elections, but that doesn’t make them unimportant. Much like the old Soviet single-candidate elections, they are considered a benchmark of legitimacy, a plebiscite on the regime, and so the Kremlin wants a high turnout and a strong vote in favour of the government’s tame pseudo-parties. What the Kremlin wants, the Kremlin gets, but the issue is rather how much rigging, scare-mongering, gerrymandering, and naked vote-buying needs to take place for the Kremlin to attain the desired result. That, in effect, will be the truest genuine index of popular satisfaction. While we outsiders will only get a sense of the answer, the regional and national elites engaged in this exercise of electoral reconstruction, will know the details well.
Local budgets have a far greater direct impact on the kinds of things that affect most people’s lives—whether their homes are heated, their roads resurfaced, their schools repaired, their hospitals clean—than national ones. But the more that’s spent on the regions, the less that’s available for the federal budget, which has a much greater impact on the kinds of things that interest Putin and his closest allies—rearmament initiatives, adventures in Syria, massive construction project boondoggles. Hence, an unresolvable tension.
And hence one of the crucial dilemmas of 2016, between federal and regional needs, and one of the crucial domestic struggles between regions competing to win as much subsidy as possible.
Kadyrov has options no other regional leader has in his autocratic grip on Chechnya and his freedom to, well, be Kadyrov. Others will look to different tactics. For some, it will be pathos; the governor of Altai, for example, has already all but begged the Ministry of Finance to offer emergency loans. For others, it will be to hype the threat that the other North Caucasus regions raise the risk of increased insurgency, for example, and regions with large numbers of single-industry-dependent cities and “monogorods” will point to the high levels of unemployment (around 20 percent in some cases) and warn of social unrest.
None are likely to be able to outgun Kadyrov literally or figuratively, though. The recent decision to transfer the Chechenneftekhimprom oil company to Chechen government control was probably a shell game intended to protect the overall level of subsidy while allowing Moscow to claim that it has scaled down direct payments to Grozny. It is hard to believe this will fool anyone, though.
So the odds are that Chechnya and a handful of other politically or strategically important regions will be protected, while the rest will lose out.
One outcome is likely to be a continued upsurge in labour and social unrest, already one of the untold but serious low-level challenges facing the Kremlin.
A second is that, in a manner reminiscent of the late Soviet era, local elites will increasingly see Moscow as an antagonist, and look for ways to con it of more resources, conceal their assets, and generally conspire to protect their interests at the centre’s expense.
And finally, the slogan “Stop Feeding The Caucasus”, which back in 2011 briefly unified Russian nationalists and anti-corruption campaigner Alexander Navalny, could gain new traction across the regions.
One way or another, Kadyrov’s gaudy proclamations of loyalty actually mask the way he is forcing the Kremlin’s hand and in the process creating a slew of new problems for the president to whom he professes his devotion.