Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 34

Political observers are still speculating about what lay behind the Putin administration’s sudden decision earlier this month to persuade or force every serious opposition candidate out of Chechnya’s presidential race. The puzzle, of course, is that this abrupt reversal of tactics effectively nullified much of the considerable effort that had gone into creating the impression–both for Russians and for foreigners–that the October election would bear at least some semblance to a free, fair, and civilized contest. From a public relations standpoint Moscow would have been better off keeping Akhmad Kadyrov’s three major rivals from entering the race to begin with, which would have been easy.

The most obvious explanation for the Kremlin’s apparent inconsistency is that its strategy for Chechnya fell hostage to a faction fight at the highest levels of the federal government. According to one version of this theory, the forces opposing Kadyrov were (and are) largely the same as those which sought earlier this summer to crack down on selected oligarchs, to undo much of the corrupt privatization of the 1990s, and to restore major elements of the old Soviet “command economy,” including a stronger role for the security agencies. For much of July and August these forces seemed to be gaining ground, but they fell short of their goal of ousting Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. It was precisely during the period when this faction seemed to be on the verge of winning that the major anti-Kadyrov candidates entered the race in Chechnya; it was after its apparent (perhaps only temporary) defeat that these candidates withdrew or were forced out.

This theory fits rather well with the known facts, but other theories are also circulating that do not directly contradict it and that may also help explain the Kremlin’s behavior. Sanobar Shermatova offered one such theory in the September 23 issue of Moskovskie novosti. She pointed out that all three of the “Moscow candidates”–Khusein Dzhabrailov, Aslambek Aslakhanov and Malik Saidullaev–were in constant contact with Putin’s staff before and during their short-lived candidacies, and that they all “received encouraging signals.” Only after receiving such encouragement did the wealthy Dzhabrailov and Saidullaev proceed to spend substantial sums on their campaigns.

According to Shermatova, the three candidates fell for a ruse. The Kremlin needed their resources–not only their rubles, but their moral and political authority and their networks of friends and relatives–to woo Chechnya’s voters before the March referendum on the republic’s new, pro-Moscow constitution. The leaders of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow enjoy a level of respect and trust back in their ancestral homeland that no Russian politician could hope to command, and thanks in large part to them there is now a legal (or pseudo-legal) basis for claiming that the Moscow-appointed government structures in Chechnya are legitimate.

“The people of Chechnya sincerely believed,” wrote Shermatova, “that life would improve for them after the adoption of the constitution. And each of the ‘Muscovites’ [i.e. Dzhabrailov, Aslakhanov and Saidullaev] hoped that in exchange for his active campaigning for the March referendum he would receive the Kremlin’s help in the struggle with his rivals for the post of president. Only when the ‘Muscovites’ were removed from the race under various pretexts did it become clear that what they had in fact achieved was to pull Kadyrov’s chestnuts from the fire.”

Especially revealing, according to Shermatova’s sources, is the case of Saidullaev. Chechnya’s Supreme Court invalidated his nomination only after several deputies of the separatist parliament announced that they had impeached Aslan Maskhadov. “It is known only to a narrow circle,” she wrote, “that it was precisely Saidullaev who worked with these deputies to convince them to do this. Naturally, he did not act from unselfish motives: If one believes one source of Moskovskie novosti, in return the Kremlin staff promised Saidullaev a ‘green light’ on his road to the presidential chair.”