The dispute in France over freedom of speech and sacred Islamic symbols that has embroiled the country following a series of attacks there by Islamist radicals has had unexpected reverberations inside the Russian Federation (see EDM, November 2). Chechnya’s governor, Ramzan Kadyrov, publicly clashed with Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov over French policies on Islam, while the Kremlin’s official stance on the issue remained ambivalent. Domestic vulnerabilities and foreign policy prospects likely make Moscow nervous about publicly discussing the French points of contention.
On October 16, an 18-year-old Moscow-born Chechen man, Abdullakh Anzorov, beheaded French history teacher Samuel Paty, 47. The attack took place close to Paty’s school just outside Paris. The educator was targeted because he showed satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to schoolchildren as part of his class curriculum. Kadyrov quickly condemned the crime but primarily blamed the French authorities for it happening in the first place (T.me/RKadyrov_95, October 17). The French government’s parallel determinations to protect existing norms of freedom of speech while curbing Islamist radicalism in the country were not received well in Chechnya. By supporting the right to publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, French President Emmanuel Macron provokes believers and forces them to commit crimes, Kadyrov declared (T.me/RKadyrov_95, October 27). But the following day, October 28, Peskov pointedly reminded the Chechen leader that only the president of Russia is allowed to make and implement foreign policy (Interfax, October 28). Kadyrov quickly responded, saying he “expressed his opinion to the French authorities as a Muslim, not as a politician.” He went on to say that he was prepared to repeat what he said about France’s president “a thousand times” and to suffer for his words, if needed, by submitting his resignation or even by sacrificing his life (T.me/RKadyrov_95, October 28).
Echoing Peskov, the veteran Russian nationalist–leaning politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky reiterated that Russia’s governors must not make statements on foreign affairs (Ekho Moskvy, October 30). Although Zhirinovsky did not mention Kadyrov by name, Chechnya’s leader hit back that same day, demanding an apology from the Russian parliamentary deputy. And despite unequivocal warnings from the Kremlin, Kadyrov once again lashed out at the leadership of France (Telegram, October 30). Zhirinovsky did not apologize but denied he had attacked Kadyrov (YouTube, October 31).
The mufti of Chechnya, Salakh-haji Mezhiev, went even further than the governor of the republic, issuing a warning to all French people who support Emmanuel Macron (Lenta.ru, October 30). In turn, Russian Supreme Mufti Talgat Tajuddin rejected the calls on Muslims to take revenge for caricatures and said that the Chechen Islamic cleric’s words were the latter’s personal opinion (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 31).
Meanwhile, a 16-year-old teen reportedly staged a knife attack on a police station in Tatarstan and was killed. The Kremlin quickly denied any connection between the attacks in France and at home (Interfax, October 30).
Kadyrov regularly makes statements addressing international relations. Sometimes, even his subordinates venture to offer foreign policy declarations—with no consequences for their careers. For example, in July, after the US Department of State unveiled a new round of sanctions against Ramzan Kadyrov and members of his family for gross violations of human rights (State.gov, July 20), Chechnya’s ruler reveled in mocking the US restrictions and exalting the Russian experience of stamping out the insurgency in the North Caucasus. The chairperson of the Chechen republican parliament, Magomed Daudov, a close associate of Kadyrov’s, recommended that the US administration “keep quiet about human rights.” At that time, Dmitry Peskov called Washington’s actions “unfriendly” and supported Kadyrov. “Naturally, this causes opposition from the head of one of the Russian regions,” Peskov noted in defending the Chechen governor (Gazeta.ru, July 27).
So why did Kadyrov’s latest foray into Russian foreign policy produce such a backlash by the Kremlin? The Russian government has an uneasy relationship with both freedom of speech and the Muslim community at home. One the one hand, Russia adopted a highly controversial law punishing anyone found insulting the feelings of religious believers, which is selectively applied by the authorities (Moskovsky Komsomolets, December 10, 2019). People in Russia can even be jailed for displaying an effigy of Putin (59.ru, August 18, 2020). But on the other hand, persecution of Muslims, especially those belonging to unapproved Islamic teachings and movements such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, is routine in Russia (Memohrc.org, accessed November 4). Xenophobia is also quite prevalent in Russian society and appears to be on the rise. The least welcome individuals in Russia, according to polls conducted in 2019, were, in ranked order, Roma, Blacks, Central Asians, Chinese, Chechens, Ukrainians and Jews (Levada.ru, September 18, 2019).
The row between France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over French policies vis-à-vis Muslims further complicated the Russian government’s stance on the issue. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been courting both Macron and Erdoğan for years, and taking a clear position on freedom of speech and religious sanctity would pit him at odds against one or the other. Befriending France is important to Russia as another point of leverage to reverse the European Union’s sanctions policy toward Moscow. Bilateral relations, marred by the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny in August, could still see a revival. After last month’s attacks on French soil, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin is planning to visit Moscow “to discuss a wide range of issues related to countering terrorism and extremist ideology” (Mid.ru, October 28). This could be a sign of a large-scale deportation plan of Chechen refugees from France to Russia.
In turn, Russia is entangled with Turkey across several conflict zones, including most recently the conflict over Karabakh, where Ankara unexpectedly stepped up to play a decisive role. More importantly, Moscow is hoping to drive a wedge between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members by supporting Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions.
Ramzan Kadyrov’s unusually audacious stance on Muslims in France boosts his popularity in his home republic and among other adherents of Islam. Notably, UFC champion from Dagestan Khabib Nurmagomedov joined in to condemn Macron (Instagram.com, October 30). By insisting on his right to make foreign policy statements, Kadyrov is creating another headache for Moscow. And having challenged the Kremlin on foreign policy issues, the leader of Chechnya did not back down after an official warning. If Kadyrov evades any consequences for his statements, it will signify a further degradation of Moscow’s grip on Chechnya.