This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
The persecution of gay people in Chechnya may point to a profound weakness in the Kremlin’s power in the republic.
When President Vladimir Putin met with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov last week there was some hope that the latest allegations of a brutal purge against gay people in the republic would be the last straw after years of Kadyrov demonstratively flouting Russian law, and that Putin would put some sort of pressure on him.
But it wasn’t, and Putin didn’t. The body language during the meeting last Wednesday is something to behold. He drew something with his finger on the table, gave Kadyrov a trademark death stare that quickly dissolved into an expression of abject hopelessness, and then clutched the arm of his chair as though his aeroplane had entered a zone of turbulence.
Kadyrov, meanwhile, complained of “provocative” and slanderous accusations that gay men were disappearing and said that that just was not true. The two men talked a bit about other issues, with Putin tentatively alluding to a recent attack in Chechnya in which six National Guard officers were killed by suspected terrorists, but then himself brushed the problem away, as if, on second thoughts, he wished to make Kadyrov feel good about his accomplishments rather than accentuate the problems: “…[s]ome issues still remain unresolved. Of course, they can be resolved, and I can see that happening, which is a good thing.”
Then Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, reiterated that there was no reason to doubt Kadyrov, that the scandal was “merely a defamation,” that Chechen authorities “are fighting and will continue to fight” – not human rights abuses, and not the illegal arrests of gays, but slander. And then Kadyrov, in an interview with RT, boasted of a new Chechen police battalion to be sent to Syria.
The sum total of the message demonstrated that Putin has no leverage over Kadyrov: that Russian laws do not work in Chechnya, but at least Chechnya is doing its bit to fight Russia’s wars (even if the battalion was merely there for protection, not military action), so it deserves every ruble of Russia’s tribute (and Kadyrov made a point of asking Putin for “federal assistance” in their meeting) and every ounce of its de facto autonomy.
Indeed, few are under the illusion that, given the way things stand, institutional procedure and Russian law are any match for tradition and power by “ponyatiya” or “understandings”, as the phrase for unwritten, unspoken rules goes, in Chechnya. When Chechen prosecutors launched an investigation into the alleged crackdown on gay people, it was clear from the start that fear and honour codes prevented Chechen men, whether gay or not, from reporting abuses to the same authorities that colluded in persecuting them. Based on my own reporting, a Chechen man who spent a week being beaten and electrocuted in a basement for his homosexuality told me he could not speak about his sexual orientation or his ordeal to his wife, let alone to the authorities. But what was even more striking was that he refused, out of fear, to reveal what agency his captors belonged to, “for obvious reasons”, he said. Just “siloviki”.
The gay purges in Chechnya, impossible to confirm, impossible to investigate under Russian law, are just the latest and most widely publicised example of legal impotence in the republic. In spring 2015, Novaya Gazeta broke the story of an underage bride forced to marry a police officer amid reports of police pressure and intimidation. The Kremlin remained silent as Kadyrov, who sent officials to the bride and then attended the ceremony himself, called it the “marriage of the millennium”, as if in celebration of Chechen tradition standing above Russian law.
Unsurprisingly, fighting the kind of radical social conservativism that leads to the persecution of gay people and forced marriages is not exactly Putin’s top priority, given Russia’s pivot to traditional values. One could even suppose that the Kremlin derives a sort of “dark power” from these abuses, which make its own overtures towards traditionalism tame by comparison. But there is also no advantage for Putin in appearing to be not in control. And the fact that he met with Kadyrov in the first place suggests that the international attention the scandal drew made it imperative to at least fake some sort of leverage – or send a message that, whatever the abuses, it is Putin’s will that Kadyrov stays right where he is.
In this light, more to the point is the investigation into the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. If Kadyrov’s inner circle was implicitly or explicitly involved, as some evidence suggests, then the incident constitutes not just a violation of Russian law. It constitutes a violation of one of the “understandings” of how Russia is ruled – one in which top opposition leaders might be harassed and persecuted, but not killed. Despite evidence of Putin’s genuine shock at the murder, and despite an initially productive investigation, it stalled the closer it got to Ramzan Kadyrov himself, and the suspected organiser of the killing has still not been found. In other words, despite reports that federal law enforcement had grown exasperated with Kadyrov and was intent on going after his inner circle, the Chechen leader, who had called one of Nemtsov’s suspected murderers a “true patriot of Russia”, remained untouchable.
If Russian law is powerless in Chechnya, then it is only Putin himself who can personally rein Ramzan Kadyrov in. Prior to their meeting, Oleg Orlov, of Memorial, which has done extensive work in Chechnya, told me that, given the international attention to the latest abuses, it seemed plausible that Putin would step in and put Kadyrov “in order”.
But the fact that, time and again, hope is placed on Putin in exercising his personalised, rather than legal, authority and doing something about Kadyrov, and that this has still not happened despite numerous opportunities to do so, should reveal something not just about Kadyrov’s power over Putin, but also Chechnya’s de facto standing within the Russian Federation. What if the two wars that Russia fought against Chechen separatists were not, after all, victorious, and, by some unspoken pact, Kadyrov is merely exercising de facto independence?
After all, Kadyrov’s gaudy displays of tradition trumping law may be an important mechanism of keeping separatism at bay by signalling, to the constituencies that matter, that Chechnya has something even better than independence: its traditions trump Russian law, while 81 percent of its budget is funded by federal subsidies.
There are many reasons why Putin cannot just tell Kadyrov to stop doing bad things: he may have little or no leverage over Kadyrov simply because he has no one to replace him with, and has no intention or capability of fighting another separatist war if things come to a head. To understand how this works – even if it does not, for all purposes, actually ‘work’ – it might be helpful to look at Russia as a de facto empire rather than a federation, where the ruler has to play a complicated balancing act of appeasing, rather than controlling, clients rather than constituents. The model might entirely contradict the law, but then again so do many things in Russia, and ultimately it will take a lot more than Vladimir Putin to bridge the chasm between law and reality.
Anna Arutunyan is a Russian-American journalist and the author of The Putin Mystique. A former fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington, she currently lives and writes in Moscow.
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.