Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 34

On September 4, Chechen President Alu Alkhanov called for renaming Chechnya the “Nokhchiin Republic,” which is the republic’s name in the Chechen language. The idea, however, received a thumbs-down the following day from the republic’s prime minister and de facto strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, as well as from a number of federal officials. Some analysts saw this as yet another sign that Kadyrov’s power is growing at Alkhanov’s expense.

As Kommersant reported on September 5, Alkhanov made the suggestion in St. Petersburg, where he was participating in a meeting of the Russian-Arab Business Council. “I charged the minister of information and press to consult with scholars, ascertaining the opinions of various public organizations, and, as a result of this work, the renaming of the republic may be proposed,” Alkhanov said. He added that his initiative was based on the fact that the word “Chechnya” has a negative “coloring,” is perceived negatively and has no legal basis. “Chechens and people of other nationality living in the republic never use that ugly word. The word ‘Chechnya’ is taken by the inhabitants of the republic as some kind of chopped-off phrase. We didn’t get used to this phrase. If we proceed from the name used by the people, then we are Nokhchi. The republic must have a different name.”

Kommersant quoted Alkhanov’s press secretary, Said-Magomed Isaraev, as saying that the idea of changing the republic’s names was merely a proposal and conceded that it might not receive sufficient backing. “It is a question only of the possibility of taking such a decision,” he said. “We have no certainty, of course, that our initiative will be supported.” The idea of renaming the republic was not spontaneous, Isaraev said. “Already a year ago the president gathered scholars and proposed that they think over a new name for the republic,” he said, noting that no official order had then been given. Now, he said, Alkhanov has decided to seriously push for the change. “The president gave an official order to the specialists,” Isaraev said. “And we, understanding that such an issue is not resolved with the stroke of a pen, are prepared to take all the steps that are necessary in such cases, including a plebiscite.” Like Alkhanov, Isaraev said changing the republic’s name would help it get away from the negative way that the media has portrayed it and its inhabitants. “The words ‘Chechnya’ and ‘Chechens’ have become synonyms for the idea of ‘a dangerous territory’ and ‘dangerous people’,” he said. “And we want to rid ourselves of those tags.”

On September 5, the day after Alkhanov floated the idea of renaming Chechnya, Kadyrov publicly rejected the idea. “I believe that the initiative of the president of the Chechen Republic on this issue is untimely,” Interfax quoted Kadyrov as saying in a statement. “It is economically inexpedient. It will take millions of rubles to change the name. It would be more advisable to use these funds to revive the republic’s social sphere.” Kadyrov also noted in the statement, “The official name of the [Russian Federation] subject is ‘the Chechen Republic,’ and the word ‘Chechnya’ is not on one page of the [republic’s] constitution. Moreover, when the national referendum was carried out and the constitution of the Chechen Republic … was adopted [in March 2003], more than 80 percent of the population expressed their agreement with the existing official name.”

Kadyrov’s rejection of Alkhanov’s call to rename Chechnya was echoed by several key federal officials, including presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov and Federation Council Constitutional Legislation Committee Chairman Yury Sharandin. This left the strong impression that the Kremlin had backed Kadyrov against Alkhanov on this issue.

Nezavisimaya gazeta noted on September 7 that on top of this, Alkhanov and Kadyrov gave separate speeches on September 6 marking Civil Unity and Accord Day, which was introduced in September 2002 by then-Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov to replace the Day of the State Sovereignty of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI) that had been observed during the rule of Djokhar Dudaev, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev and Aslan Maskhadov. “What is notable is not only the fact that the two leaders gave separate speeches, but also the orientation of those speeches,” the newspaper wrote. “If Alkhanov spoke more about the ‘the tangled destiny’ of the Chechens ‘with the peoples of multi-ethnic Russia,’ then Kadyrov stressed that ‘the Chechen people learned the lessons of tragedy and with redoubled efforts are moving on the path to revival.’” According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, Kadyrov declared in his speech, “Cities and villages are rising from the ruins; new schools [and] hospitals are opening, manufacturing facilities [and] agro-industrial complexes are being put into operation.” In other words, as the newspaper put it, Kadyrov speech was aimed at showing that “everything is going perfectly” in the sphere for which he is responsible.

Nezavisimaya gazeta noted that the split between Alkhanov and Kadyrov is becoming increasingly sharp and public with the approach of October 5—the day Kadyrov turns 30 and is constitutionally permitted to assume the presidency. “Apparently, the approach of that date is making Alkhanov extremely nervous, forcing him to make, let’s say, unusual statements,” the newspaper wrote. “It looks like Alu Alkhanov is, as writers of novels would put it, ‘on the edge of a nervous breakdown.’ It cannot be ruled out that this breakdown will conclude with a voluntary resignation.”