During a single press conference in Moscow on January 19, Akhmad Kadyrov publicly called for two sweeping constitutional changes, either of which would sharply accelerate the current authoritarian trend in Russia. Especially noteworthy is that each of these proposals applies not to Chechnya but to the Russia Federation as a whole. This is a subject on which Kadyrov has until now been relatively silent.
Kadyrov proposed that Russian President Vladimir Putin be made president for life, for the simple reason that Putin is “the best president for Russia.” The Chechen strongman thus put himself far in advance of Putin’s other supporters, the most zealous of whom have contented themselves with hints that the constitution should be amended to allow the president to serve another four year term–or two.
Kadyrov also proposed amending one of the central human rights sections of Russia’s 1993 constitution, the one guaranteeing religious freedom. The separation of church and state is “incorrect” as a matter of principle, he said.
Not surprisingly, the first of these two proposals has attracted more attention both in Russia and abroad. Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya gazeta likened Kadyrov to Vladimir Zhirinovsky: Either one, she wrote, “opens his mouth on whatever theme is ordered by the presidential administration, helping smooth the way for the public to accept this or that secret plan.” She noted that for the last month Zhirinovsky has been proclaiming that autocracy is the only natural path for Russia; Kadyrov has now joined him.
Why such radical proposals at this particular moment? One theory is that Kadyrov feels emboldened by the success of his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, which is being widely seen as a breakthrough in his long quest to have his legitimacy recognized by the most powerful Muslim states. As Politkovskaya put it, “no matter what kind of political clown Kadyrov seems to be in Moscow…the leaders of the Muslim world have now made their peace with him, not with Maskhadov.”
In a January 26 article for the website Politcom.ru, correspondent Tatyana Stanovaya interpreted Kadyrov’s recent maneuvers as part of a bargaining process with the Kremlin. He is taking advantage of his status as a former Islamic mufti, she suggested, by trying to show that he is uniquely positioned to serve as an intermediary between Putin and the Islamic world. In return he hopes to win unprecedented economic autonomy for his regime in Chechnya. Indeed, a renewed call for a new federal treaty between Moscow and Grozny was yet another theme of his January 19 press conference.
In economic matters, however, Kadyrov’s interests directly clash with those of well-connected institutions such as the “Rosneft” oil company. Stanovaya noted that negotiations over the proposed new treaty have moved slowly. Though it has accommodated Kadyrov on matters such as personnel appointments, the Kremlin still seems reluctant to grant him core constitutional concessions that would be difficult to reverse later.