The ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, is embroiled in a dispute with the Russian Ministry of Interior. On April 19, law enforcement agents conducting a special operation in Grozny shot and killed a suspect after he reportedly tried to ram a police car and opened fire. The slain suspect was later identified as Jambulat Dadaev, who was on the federal wanted list for a murder in the neighboring Stavropol region. What initially seemed to be another routine police operation in Chechnya turned into an enormous national scandal (Kavkazskaya Politika, April 23).
Apparently, the police officers involved were not Chechen, but were from the Stavropol region, and had not informed their Chechen colleagues about their plans in Chechnya. The Russian military stationed in Khankala, in the suburb of Grozny, aided the Stavropol police. The special operation outraged Kadyrov, who demanded a full investigation of the incident. In his view, the police and military involved in the special operation acted in breach of existing instructions. “We will not have this on our territory,” he stated at an extraordinary meeting of the republican government on April 20. “Those who think otherwise are mistaken. We have paid dearly for peace and order. The 2000s era has passed. Someone decided to achieve a quick result, they took a Chechen and killed him. This will not happen again. We demand due legal process.” The Chechen ruler went on to issue a stark warning, addressing the Chechen police: “I officially state that if anyone appears on your territory without you knowing about it – it does not matter whether they are a Muscovite or a Stavropolian—open fire to kill” (Kavkazskaya Politika, April 23).
Russian experts and ordinary Russians have known for some time that Chechnya is de-facto outside the control of Russian government agencies and virtually outside the Russian legal space—a place where Russian laws do not operate. This was the first time, however, that Kadyrov stated it officially. Kadyrov’s personal forces have full control over the territory of Chechnya, and Russian federal agents cannot operate there. Even though a large Russian military force is still stationed in the republic, it does not carry out police functions apart from sometimes supporting the operations of Kadyrov’s forces.
Addressing the government meeting, Kadyrov explained his policy, stating: “They should respect us. We do not have the right to go into Ingushetia’s territory to carry out operations against extremists and terrorists. If you are the masters of your territory, you should be in control. Enough. They denigrated and insulted us. We did not adopt the constitution of the Russian Federation to allow them to kill us” (Tvrain.ru, April 23).
In fact, after Kadyrov’s statements, Chechen investigators launched a probe into the actions of the Stavropol police in Grozny on charges they had exceeded their authority. The chief of the Russian Ministry of Interior’s Main Directorate in Grozny, Sergei Chenchik, arrived in the Chechen capital following the scandalous developments on April 23. The Chechen government’s notorious human rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhazhiev, alleged that the police killed Dadaev instead of arresting him when he raised his hands. Moreover, Nukhazhiev claimed unidentified Dagestanis had bribed Stavropol police to kill Dadaev, with whom they allegedly had a dispute (Kavkazskaya Politika, April 23). However, the Russian Investigative Committee closed down the Chechen investigation, as a demonstration of its own power (Sledcom.ru, April 24). In response, Kadyrov demanded that the Investigative Committee explain its decision and said the Russian government had to answer to the relatives of Chechens killed by the Russian state (Instagram, April 25).
A wave of indignation rose in the Russian media, as if Russians did not already know that Russian laws operate in Chechnya only circumstantially. Even Kadyrov’s own lawyer, Alexander Ostrovsky, said that his client should retract his statement as soon as possible: “This is a very dangerous statement for Kadyrov, which he probably made hot headedly, because the situation looks like this: Russia must provide for Chechnya, but they [the Chechens] will do in Chechnya whatever they want.” Chechen rights activist Kheda Saratova, however, supported Kadyrov, calling him “the master of Chechnya” (“khozyain Chechni”). Russian rights activist Oleg Khabibrakhmanov, on the other hand, stated that Kadyrov was entering the zone of responsibility of the federal authorities and had no right to usurp power in a region like Chechnya, which is Russian territory. If all Russian regions start making such statements, the rights activist stated, the territorial integrity of Russia could be undermined (Gazeta.ru, April 23).
Reacting to the wave of public criticism in the Russian media, Kadyrov said he was prepared to resign if needed and reiterated his loyalty to President Vladimir Putin (Gazeta.ru, April 23). Kadyrov’s statement about his readiness to resign sounded more like a threat than an apology.
The conflict did not stop there. On April 23, the Russian interior ministry stated that Stavropol police had contacted their Chechen colleagues about the special operation in advance. The statement called Kadyrov’s statement about shooting police from other regions that operate inside Chechnya without permission “impermissible” (Mvd.ru, April 23). Kadyrov, in turn, accused the Russian interior ministry of lying and reiterated his earlier statement about shooting police officers from other regions of Russia that operate in Chechnya without Chechen authorities’ permission (Gazeta.ru, April 25). Kadyrov effectively claimed a monopoly for violence on Chechen territory, which is quite close to claiming sovereignty, especially given current realities in Russia.
Even though Chechnya has ceased to be an arena of active large-scale military operations, no one knows what will happen if Kadyrov leaves. Kadyrov seems to be betting on his indispensability. The Kremlin may have had a long-term plan for a “soft” dismissal of Kadyrov: He was reportedly offered the position of deputy prime minister in the Russian government, which he was supposed to fill in the fall of this year. However, according to the report, Kadyrov refused the proposal, apparently realizing that this is a way of removing him from the political scene (Ekho Moskvy Radio, April 24).
As this dispute continues, it appears to be creating yet another difficult situation for Putin, leaving him no option but to find a way to replace Kadyrov and face the possible destabilization of Chechnya. The Russian government’s moves to undermine and eventually to replace Kadyrov follow the logic of damage control, with Moscow trying to prepare for difficult times in the future by removing obvious risks now. Kadyrov is seen as a security threat at a time when the Russian economy is projected to experience an even further sharp downturn.