Kadyrov’s privileged status has increasingly become a serious problem for the Kremlin
Back in June 2004, Anna Politkovskaya, Russia's fearless journalist and human rights activist, went to interview Ramzan Kadyrov at his residence in his home village of Tsentoroi in Chechnya. Kadyrov, the current head of Chechnya, a region in the Russian North Caucasus, is the younger son of this territory’s first president, Akhmad Kadyrov. Kadyrov Jr. was the commander of his father’s personal security guards until his death in a terrorist attack in May 2004. After his father’s death, the 27-year-old Kadyrov was promptly appointed first deputy prime minister of Chechnya in charge of security and law enforcement. This was his position when Politkovskaya interviewed him.
Politkovskaya waited for Kadyrov for seven or eight hours before he finally arrived with scores of armed men. In the interview, he bragged that his men would “fight all over Russia in order to destroy Basayev’s men”. (Shamil Basayev was the leader of the Chechen separatists.) “Those who will not surrender, will be destroyed”, he declared.
He insulted and threatened Politkovskaya and called her his enemy, saying that she was “worse than Basayev”. She was fully at Kadyrov’s mercy – she had been driven to his residence by his men and could not leave by herself. In the end she began to cry. They were “tears of desperation”, she wrote in Novaya Gazeta, “how could it happen, that a turn of history would elevate a man such as Ramzan Kadyrov […] The Kremlin nurtured a baby dragon, and now he needs to be constantly fed so he would not exhale flames”.
In 2006, Politkovskaya was assassinated in her apartment building in Moscow. A year later, Ramzan Kadyrov became the president of Chechnya. Today, in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s heavily centralised political system, President Kadyrov enjoys a unique degree of independence and impunity, a privilege afforded to no other regional leader.
In late February this year, the Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow, right next to the Kremlin. Charges have been brought against several men, all of them from Chechnya. Since then, Kadyrov’s privileged status has increasingly become a serious challenge to the Kremlin.
The Chechen insurgency
A couple years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the people of Chechnya joined an armed secessionist revolt inspired by the Soviet disintegration and the collective memory of the brutal deportation of their people under Stalin in 1944, as well as a long history of their bloody oppression in imperial Russia.
After two atrocious wars, the Russian government was able to regain control over most of the Chechen territory and bring over some of the insurgents to its side. One of them was Akhmad Kadyrov, who, in 2003, became Chechnya’s pro-Moscow president.
The hostilities, however, continued for years to come. Between 2000 and 2004, the insurgents launched some two dozen terrorist attacks in which around 900 people were killed; one of those attacks took the life of Akhmad Kadyrov.
In offering his condolences, Putin had Ramzan Kadyrov delivered to the Kremlin, where the two appeared side-by-side on national TV, with the young Ramzan clad in a tracksuit – in stark violation of the Kremlin’s formal ways. The scene was that of a father-like Putin granting protection to the orphaned Ramzan. Since that time, Kadyrov Jr. has enjoyed this highly special status and has, on many occasions, expressed in public his deep allegiance to Putin.
“If it had not been for Putin”, he told a reporter in 2009, “Chechnya would not even exist […] I owe my life to Putin. If I ever forget this, I am not a man. When I went through a terribly hard time in my life, he helped. He is the most saintly man to me”.
In the second half of the 2000s, the role of Russian federal forces in Chechnya gradually diminished, and that of Kadyrov steadily increased. Horrific brutalities were committed on both sides, the anti-Russian – now also anti-Kadyrov – fighters as well as the formidable Kadyrovtsy, many of whom had defected to Kadyrov’s ranks and were under significant pressure to prove their new loyalty. Human rights activists, Russian and foreign, as well as the media have, over the years, documented scores of abductions, hostage takings, incidents of torture, and the operation of secret prisons for members of the Chechen resistance. The Kremlin has turned a blind eye to these violations so long as Kadyrov, a brutal and violent strongman, continues to fulfill his mission on the Russian government’s behalf.
The Kremlin has also looked the other way on corruption. It provided generous budget transfers to Chechnya without tracking how these funds were spent. In 2011, Natalia Zubarevich, Russia's leading economist, described the North Caucasus and Chechnya in particular as a bottomless pit for federal subsidies. The per capita share of the federal budget has been significantly higher in Chechnya than the average indicator for Russia’s regions, whereby the Chechen economy itself is barely viable: in 2011, 90 percent of the Chechen budget consisted of federal transfer funds.
A few years into his rule, Chechnya grew reasonably pacified – or intimidated into submission. Terrorist activity subsided after the horrific 2004 tragedy in Beslan school in neighbouring North Ossetia in which over 300 people died, most of them children; and until 2010, there had been no deadly attacks beyond the North Caucasus (in December 2010, and in the spring of 2011, two more major terrorist acts took place in Moscow, but by then Kadyrov had gained so much political power that even those two deadly attacks did not weaken his position).
In addition to quelling the insurgency, Kadyrov has consistently delivered a unanimous pro-Kremlin vote in national elections. The Kremlin rewarded him with the Chechen presidency in 2007, made him the local leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, and granted him state awards.
But the longer the Kremlin depended on Kadyrov’s services, the more it became hostage to Kadyrov’s growing ambition: he evolved as an absolute master of his territory and his people, and while formally Chechnya has remained just one of over 80 Russian regions – and one heavily dependent on Russia’s budgetary allocations at that – Kadyrov has arguably gained more autonomy for his realm than the secessionist leaders of the 1990s could have ever dreamed of.
Under Kadyrov, Chechnya has become a quasi-Islamic state: women are required to wear headscarves, the Quran is taught in Chechen schools, and numerous mosques have been built, including one that is described as “the largest mosque in Europe”. Likewise, Kadyrov has repeatedly spoken of his respect for Sharia law and his approval of polygamy, as well as expressed support for the custom that calls for the murder of women for “dishonourable conduct”.
Kadyrov’s Chechnya: A state within a state
Over the years, those who have gotten in Kadyrov’s way – political rivals, personal enemies, journalists, human rights defenders – have been mysteriously assassinated in Chechnya, in Moscow, in Vienna, and in Dubai. Yet Kadyrov has invariably remained beyond legal suspicion. In 2009, Natalia Estemirova, a Chechen activist and one of the very few who had still dared to report on the human rights situation in Chechnya, was murdered. When a prominent Moscow human rights activist dared to suggest that Kadyrov bore responsibility for her murder, the Chechen leader sued him for defamation.
“Kadyrov runs Chechnya like his private empire – a state within a state, where no law exists except his own orders”, Tanya Lokshina, Russia Programme Director at Human Rights Watch, told me. “Under his rule, collective punishment, including the burning of the homes of insurgents’ families, has become a norm, and a ferocious virtue campaign for women has been unleashed. Criticising Kadyrov and his policies can be lethal, and after the brazen murder of Natalia Estemirova […] local activists became practically paralysed with fear”.
“I can’t care less about […] the so-called human rights organisations”, Kadyrov wrote late last year on Instagram after over a dozen policemen had been killed in Chechnya.“If a fighter in Chechnya kills a policeman or another person, his family will be promptly driven out of Chechnya without the right of return, and their house torn down together with the foundation”. A couple of days later, four houses were set alight in Chechnya by masked men.
Kadyrov, a challenge to the Kremlin?
In the midst of the current armed conflict in Ukraine, Kadyrov told the Russian TV channel REN-TV that if only he had such orders he’d be ready to send 74,000 men to fight for the Russian cause in Ukraine. No such orders have been given, but Kadyrov has not abandoned his ambition to fight for large causes, whether or not they align with the Kremlin’s agenda, and, in fact, in the cases below, that challenge the Kremlin’s agenda and assert Kadyrov’s autonomy.
In January this year, for example, he organised and joined a huge rally (the largest ever in the North Caucasus) against the Charlie Hebdo caricatures and those who support them.He then went on to openly threaten one of Russia’s most prominent journalists, Aleksey Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of the popular radio station Echo of Moscow after the station asked its listeners to share their opinion about those who call on the media to reprint the Charlie Hebdo caricatures. Kadyrov accused the station of an anti-Islamic and anti-Russian stance: “Russian Muslims”, he said, “will not forever tolerate the excesses of Venediktov and Co”.
Another incident concerns the men from Chechnya who were arrested on charges related to the assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. The main suspect, according to the investigation, is Zaur Dadaev, who previously served as deputy commander of an elite police unit loyal to Kadyrov. Kadyrov promptly defended Dadaev: he said he knew him as a “true patriot” who is “deeply devoted to Russia and ready to give his life for his motherland”. This was universally seen in Moscow as utter disloyalty to the Kremlin.
According to media reports, the police faced resistance when they tried to detain a certain Ruslan Geremeev, a man belonging to a prominent Chechen family and probably under suspicion of being involved in the assassination of Nemtsov. When law enforcement from Moscow arrived to the Chechen village where they thought he might be hiding, they found all approaches guarded by heavily armed men.
In mid-April, Venediktov asked Putin at his yearly public call-in show, “what causes surprise and doubt is that […] a witness hides in the Russian territory, in one of Russia’s federal regions […] and the investigators can’t interrogate him […] Has our state lost all its power?” Putin did not answer the question.
Shortly after the assassination of Nemtsov, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that some among the security elites have long been outraged by Kadyrov’s free rein and that there have been serious tensions between them and the head of Chechnya. The story was based on unnamed sources, but the law enforcement’s failure to get hold of Geremeev has demonstrated that they have a good reason to be outraged.
Last week, the conflict between Russian law enforcement and Kadyrov rose to a new level. In a joint operation conducted in Chechen territory by federal police and police from Stavropol, a region neighbouring Chechnya, an armed Chechen man was shot. In response, Kadyrov organised his own interior forces and declared that any outsider, “whether a Muscovite or a Stavropol man”, operating in Chechnya should be shot to kill.
Once again, Kadyrov appears to be getting away with egregious insubordination. Though he later somewhat softened his stance, his standoff with the federal siloviki has now come to the fore and is sure to continue unless Putin finally decides to strip Kadyrov of his immunity. So far, the Russian president has remained silent.
Read more on: Wider Europe
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.