In the Footsteps of Dokka Umarov: Kadyrov’s Trip to Kabardino-Balkaria

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 20

On May 13, the pro-Russian leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, made his first official visit since February 15, when the Kremlin appointed him as Chechnya’s acting president. Kadyrov visited another North Caucasian republic – the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria (KBR). The Chechen leader explained his trip to Kabardino-Balkaria by citing his inauguration promise to its president, Arsen Kanokov, that the republic would be the first place he would visit in his new status as Chechnya’s full-fledged president. Ramzan Kadyrov declared in Kabardino-Balkaria that the “friendly ties that have existed between the peoples of the two regions for centuries should be developed” (RTR-Vesti, May 13). Kanokov responded: “We want to develop brotherly, purer relations.” The KBR president spoke in favor of a new agreement between the two republics to replace the old one, which was signed in 1996. Kanokov said he would order his government to update the agreement in order to sign it “in light of new realities.”

During his meeting with Kanokov, Kadyrov proposed that the leaders of all the North Caucasian regions meet monthly “to discuss the path forward.” Kadyrov’s proposal led some journalists in Russia to suggest that he is seeking to spread his influence from Chechnya to the entire North Caucasus. Commenting on Kadyrov’s journey to KBR, Vremya novostei wrote on May 16 that “less than a month and a half after his inauguration, the Chechen leader began to justify the predictions of analysts who said that his political ambitions went far beyond the [Chechen] presidency and that Kadyrov would make himself known at the level of the whole Southern Federal District.” The newspaper reminded its readers that Kadyrov has already been an adviser to Dmitry Kozak, the Russian president’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, for two years.

It is not quite clear, however, how Ramzan Kadyrov, in practice, can become a more significant political figure in the North Caucasus than the other regional leaders. In accordance with a new Russian law, Kadyrov was appointed Chechen president by the Kremlin just like the head of any other North Caucasian republic. Kadyrov’s policies, like those of other North Caucasian leaders, are fully dependent on decisions made in Moscow. It is interesting to compare Kadyrov’s statements in KBR with the speech of Doku Zavgaev, the Chechen pro-Russian puppet who visited KBR in May 1996 to sign the treaty of friendship and cooperation with its leadership.

“The Chechen nation is fully aware of the threat of religious extremism that is implanted from the outside, and has made its choice” (Kadyrov). “Lawless acts have been carried out on behalf of the nation, but the nation has become the main victim” (Zavgaev). “The Chechen nation will not allow the emissaries of international terrorism to use Chechnya as a springboard to tear down Russia via the Caucasus” (Kadyrov). “There are forces that are trying to destabilize the situation in the North Caucasus. There are organizations in Chechnya that are looking for contacts here, in Kabardino-Balkaria, in Dagestan, Ingushetia and in the whole North Caucasus” (Zavgaev). “There are no new militants in Chechnya, not a single unknown person could appear in the republic and escape observation. Chechnya is recovering, people are tired of war” (Kadyrov). “There is peace in 95 or 98 percent of the Chechen territory. Apartment buildings are being restored and people and the economy are recovering” (Zavgaev).

As one can see, Kadyrov’s declarations do not differ much from Zavgaev’s statements that were made more than a decade earlier, and the fate of Doku Zavgaev is widely known: in August 1996, three mouths after his visit to KBR, he flew off to Russia from a military base after the rebels took control of the Chechen capital and the entire republic. Kadyrov’s guarantees of firm control over Chechnya seem to be unrealistic, considering the numerous statements that have been made by Russian security officials at all levels, which reveal that rebel attacks in the region are increasing and hundreds, if not thousands, of militants are hiding in the Chechen mountains (Chechnya Weekly, April 12, November 9 and December 7, 2006).

Kadyrov’s visit to Kabardino-Balkaria should not be regarded as an attempt by the Chechen pro-Russian president to spread his political influence beyond the borders of his republic, but as a trip carried out for propaganda purposes. The main objective of Kadyrov’s visit was to calm down Kabardino-Balkaria’s population, which has been living on a knife’s edge, waiting for another major attack that the rebels have promised to launch (Chechnya Weekly, November 22, 2006). On May 14, just a day after Kadyrov’s visit to Kabardino-Balkaria, a meeting of police officers took place in Nalchik, the KBR capital. During the meeting, the republic’s police stated that they feared the insurgents might unite their forces not only in the republic but also throughout the North Caucasus and launch an armed offensive against the authorities (Kavkazky Uzel, May 14).

Another aim of the trip may have been to respond to rebel propaganda, which claimed that the rebel Caucasian front is gaining strength and that all Caucasian insurgents are unified under the command of the Chechen separatists. Last November, the rebel Kavkaz-Center website posted information that Chechen separatist president Dokka Umarov had visited Kabardino-Balkaria to meet with local field commanders, including Anzor Astemirov, aka Saifuallah, the main rebel leader in the region. In April, the website posted a short video about another journey made by Dokka Umarov to KBR, which took place this past winter. On the video, Dokka Umarov and his bodyguards can be seen going along a snowy mountain road toward, as they say in the video, Kabardino-Balkaria. This cannot be verified, since mountain roads in the North Caucasus all look alike. However, Ramzan Kadyrov’s visit to Nalchik shows that the authorities are worried about the information that is being spread by the insurgents and are looking for ways to counter it. The determined speeches of Ramzan Kadyrov should serve this purpose and demonstrate that Kadyrov—and not the “shaitan” (Satan) Dokka Umarov, as Ramzan calls him—is the real master of Chechnya. Arsen Kanokov said during his meeting with Kadyrov that “if Chechnya is calm, the North Caucasus is calm too.” Still, it is not quite certain whether the Kabardino-Balkarian leader really believes that Ramzan is the right person to guarantee this calm.