Is Chechnya Taking Over Russia?

The evening plane that landed on Aug. 2 at the airport in Grozny, the capital of the Russian republic of Chechnya, was met by a group of high-level officials. Next to them was a young woman in a green hijab with white dots in the shape of hearts, waiting and doing her best to control her emotions. Then the steps were lowered, and a Chechen military police officer carried down a pale, thin boy awkwardly dressed in a plaid jacket and a fedora.

The child did not recognize his mother, whom he had not seen for two years. In 2015, 4-year-old Bilal was abducted by his father when he went to join the Islamic State. In mid-July, the boy was discovered by Iraqi soldiers in the ruins of Mosul, and a video of the event went viral. Two weeks later, the omnipotent Chechen leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, delivered the child to his mother.

Mr. Kadyrov, often referred to simply as Ramzan, cultivates a reputation for helping the needy and sick. He had helped release Russian journalists detained in Ukraine and had rescued Russian marines captured in Libya. This reputation has inspired desperate Russians to start appealing to him by sending video messages — a mode of address once the prerogative of President Vladimir V. Putin during yearly televised call-in shows.

With millions of people following his social media accounts, the Chechen leader has growing clout, and his approval ratings among ordinary Russians are rising. A former separatist militant whose powerful clan swapped sides in 1999 and supported Mr. Putin during the second Chechen war, Mr. Kadyrov has ruled Chechnya for over 10 years. In that time he has turned the former breakaway republic into a state within a state in Russia, with its own laws, security services, taxation system and even foreign policy.

Mr. Kadyrov’s inner circle publicly refers to Ramzan as “padishah,” or “king,” and treats him as royalty. He commands the full obedience of Chechnya’s citizens thanks to widespread violations of rights and a climate of fear around the republic’s powerful security services. Mr. Kadyrov’s style — as a strongman who doesn’t mince words, solves problems and can either buy or bully anyone into submission — has gained appeal as Russia itself continues on its journey toward populist autocracy.

Supporters carry a portrait of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov during a rally in St. Petersburg, Russia, in February 2016. Credit NurPhoto/NurPhoto, via Getty Images
Supporters carry a portrait of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov during a rally in St. Petersburg, Russia, in February 2016. Credit NurPhoto/NurPhoto, via Getty Images

Today, Mr. Kadyrov is a vivid reflection of Mr. Putin’s third presidential term: fiercely ideological and conservative, with great emphasis on traditional values and macho nationalism. Both leaders are famous for their displays of virility: Mr. Putin is a judo champion, and Mr. Kadyrov is a mixed martial arts fanatic. Mr. Putin grew up on Leningrad’s streets, learning to respect stronger boys. Mr. Kadyrov came of age with a gun in his hand in an actual shooting war.

Both leaders like to pose with tigers and weapons, or be filmed or photographed while driving, horseback riding, working out and praying. Mr. Putin’s machismo also manifests in occasional sexist statements; Mr. Kadyrov outright supports honor killings. Both persecute homosexuality: While the Russian leader has introduced anti-gay legislation, the Chechen has denied the very existence of gays in his republic — although reports recently emerged that Chechnya’s security agents were systematically torturing gay men in secret prisons.

But the apparent similarities disguise significant differences, even tensions. Mr. Kadyrov is young and ambitious, whereas Mr. Putin is experienced but fatigued — and is running out of ways to boost his popularity as his current term winds up in 2018. Moreover, Mr. Putin’s inability to rein in the willful Mr. Kadyrov is a key indicator that the Russian president’s control over the powerful elites in his own state may also be waning.

To date, Mr. Putin has given carte blanche to Mr. Kadyrov. The Kremlin never cared much for how things were managed in Chechnya, as long as the atrocities stayed within its borders. When they have spilled over, the Kremlin has frowned but guaranteed impunity. Mr. Kadyrov has defeated a separatist Islamist insurgency and, with the help of federal funding, raised from ashes a republic once ruined by war. Along the way he has accumulated enormous wealth, promoted charities and sports events and run his own reality show on Russian television.

In addition, Mr. Kadyrov has trained and equipped his security services. He is one of the top political lobbyists in Moscow. When he wrestles with Russian corporations and ministries, he usually wins.

Some critics claim that Mr. Putin now fears Mr. Kadyrov because he knows any serious attempt to challenge the Chechen leader’s position might lead to a third war. And this could be bloodier than the previous wars because Mr. Kadyrov’s security forces, which are only nominally a branch of the Russian Interior Ministry, are so well trained and well equipped.

Fear of Mr. Kadyrov extends far beyond Chechnya. Allegedly, several hundred Chechen security operatives are permanently based in Moscow, where some are said to “tax” businesses and engage in other illegal activities. The local Russian police appear unable to intervene when their Chechen colleagues make arrests outside their jurisdiction. On occasions when men from Mr. Kadyrov’s inner circle have been implicated in grave crimes, federal authorities have been blocked from investigating them.

The other side of this bargain is that Mr. Kadyrov, who famously appears in public wearing T-shirts with Mr. Putin’s image, repeatedly declares that he is ready to fight and die for the Russian leader wherever he asks. As long as Mr. Kadyrov displays such super-loyalty, Mr. Putin shows little unease about the growing power and reach of his Chechen ally. Is the Russian president really so trusting, or has he become, in effect, hostage to Mr. Kadyrov?

Neither. The Grozny-Kremlin relationship is calculated, controlled and mutually beneficial. Mr. Kadyrov has convinced the Kremlin that only he can control Chechnya, and Mr. Putin sees this “conflict resolution” model as effective. Chechnya’s security forces are an asset for Russia in a time of hybrid wars when, as Mr. Kadyrov put it in a recent interview for HBO, it can be useful to “screw” opponents in covert operations. Mr. Kadyrov’s men have, in fact, fought in Ukraine and in Syria. The Chechen leader has also negotiated with Middle Eastern governments and is rebuilding mosques in Aleppo and Homs in Syria.

For his part, Mr. Putin has used the war in Chechnya and the threat of terrorism to curb freedoms. Many of the repressive practices in Russia today were initially tested on the population of Chechnya. For over a decade, police from other regions rotated through Chechnya and brought home the “skills” they acquired there, not least a greater readiness to use torture. Mr. Putin can be confident that if a time comes when he needs to “Chechenize” Russia even further, to hold on to power, he can rely on Mr. Kadyrov, who remains too local and ethnically distinct to have a future in political high office at the federal level.

Moreover, the Chechen leader is believed to depend on Mr. Putin for protection from his enemies in the upper echelons of the Russian security establishment. Chechnya is heavily reliant on federal funding, and without money, Mr. Kadyrov’s loyalists would quickly thin out to a few dozen relatives and friends. Thousands of Chechens who have suffered grave abuses are waiting for a chance for revenge.

The close Grozny-Kremlin relationship, possibly inflated by the media, clearly irritates parts of Russian society and contributes to a covert anti-Chechen xenophobia. Mr. Kadyrov’s role has become a major issue between Mr. Putin and the opposition, parts of which support or would accept Chechnya’s independence — though officially, public discussion of separatism is illegal.

There is a growing public awareness of the enormous potential for conflict over Chechnya and that the alliance between the two strongmen is very contingent and highly personalized. But their very interdependence makes the Putin-Kadyrov bond very powerful. If the civil unrest that’s forecast for Russia materializes, that bond is likely to be reinforced.

Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, a former North Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group, is a writer and researcher.

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