As long as the Russian government was able to pay Chechnya massive subsidies, Ramzan Kadyrov was generally prepared to keep his republic quiet and play by Moscow’s rules as far as his activities beyond Chechen borders were concerned. But now, Moscow faces economic stringencies that put future flows of such funds in doubt. Meanwhile, Kadyrov himself has increasingly shown that his own appetite for power is, in fact, growing; and the Chechen leader has been taking steps designed to expand his power and influence, often in ways that undermine Russia’s interests (see below). The Kremlin is loath to try to rein him in as such pressure at this time could provoke an explosion the central government does not wish to face. Nevertheless, the center’s support for Kadyrov is clearly running thin precisely because, by failing to oppose the Chechen leader, Moscow is being blamed for his confrontational activities in the North Caucasus and beyond Russia’s borders.
This is now the case in at least three different areas: 1) Kadyrov’s regional land grabs, first against Ingushetia and now against Dagestan; 2) moves to expand his particular forms of control over Chechens to his co-ethnics living in other parts of the Russian Federation; 3) as well as his cozying up with Azerbaijan. So far, the Chechen leader’s relations with Azerbaijan have been consistent with Russia’s own policies; but these activities beyond the Russian Federation’s borders certainly raise the prospect that Kadyrov may eventually be in a position to try to leverage his ties with Baku against Moscow.
First of all, as a result of his September 26, 2018, agreement with the head of the Republic of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, which involved the transfer of 26,000 hectares of Ingushetian land to Chechnya (see EDM, September 27, 2018), Kadyrov sparked a massive wave of protests in that neighboring region. Those demonstrations have persisted to this day, forcing Moscow to introduce massive and overwhelmingly ethnic-Russian security forces to try to restore order and maintain the status quo (see Commentaries, October 23, 2018). Moscow decided last fall that it had no choice but to support Kadyrov lest he lash out and provoke unrest in Chechnya. But now that the protests in Ingushetia have again resumed and the prospect of a settlement there is increasingly problematic, at least some in the Russian capital may be reconsidering their bet.
Most recently, Kadyrov has upped the ante still further. On the one hand, he has come up with a plan to move some 6,500 Chechens into what were heretofore Ingush lands, thus seeking to make the border change there permanent (Kavkazsky Uzel, April 5, 2019). And on the other hand, in direct violation of Moscow’s directives, Grozny has unilaterally also shifted the Chechen border with Dagestan in its favor. The amount of land involved in the latter case is relatively small. But Moscow said adjoining regions should reach an agreement precisely so that no one side would take an action that would provoke another. Kadyrov has now done so, and many Daghestanis are furious and fearful Kadyrov will do even more (Kavkazsky Uzel, April 8; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, April 9). This confronts Moscow with a Hobson’s choice, one in which it will have bigger problems regardless of which side it comes down on.
Second, Kadyrov is pushing to extend his program under which Chechens charged with crimes or simply lèse majesté must apologize to him and the Chechen people. He now wants the same sanctions to apply to ethnic Chechens living elsewhere in the Russian Federation. Some, including regional expert Aleksey Malashenko of the Dialogue of Civilizations Institute, see this as an effort to rein in all Russian Chechens, lest their “bad” behavior compromise Kadyrov’s standing in Moscow. But given how this tactic works inside Chechnya, it certainly will also have the effect of expanding Kadyrov’s personal control over the Chechen diaspora (Kavkazsky Uzel, April 2). To the extent his control increases, he may attract even more criticism from the siloviki (security services personnel) who dislike him anyway; but Chechnya’s head may also be in a better position to use the diaspora against his enemies and thus threaten anyone who challenges his position.
And third, Kadyrov has recently launched a new effort to win support for himself and his republic in Azerbaijan. One of the paradoxes of Kadyrov’s standing has been that he has won backing far from his republic but not in the Caucasus region itself, Maaz Bilalov of Radio Liberty’s Caucasus service writes (Kavkazr.com, April 4). But that has not stopped him from trying again and again to win over Baku.
This week, Kadyrov dispatched Adam Delimkhanov, a member of the Chechen parliament, to meet with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. The two announced an agreement on the opening of a Chechnya office in Baku, nominally at least to deal with the consular needs of the roughly 700 Chechens still living there. That suggests, of course, that the opening of a Chechen “consulate” is really about something else—the establishment of a direct channel between Grozny and Baku, on which Kadyrov can rely.
Yet, according to the Radio Liberty journalist, there are two reasons to think that Kadyrov may not succeed in his ambitious goal, however much he tries. On the one hand, there was no indication at the Aliyev-Delimkhanov meeting that the two sides had also agreed to the establishment of an Azerbaijani office in Grozny, something Kadyrov very much wants. And on the other hand, earlier efforts by Kadyrov to expand links with Baku failed to take off even after they were announced, with much fanfare (Kavkazr.com, April 4; News.day.az, June 22, 2013).
From Moscow’s perspective, it is not the success or failure of Kadyrov’s efforts that matter here, but rather the fact that the Chechen leader is making them by himself, especially at a time when Moscow is itself trying to expand relations with Baku. And so in this area too, Kadyrov is showing that he can act independently. Together with his other moves, that must make Moscow—uncertain how and even whether to respond—quite nervous indeed.