Kadyrov Tests Moscow’s Strategy in the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 26

Head of the Republic of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov (Source: ria.ru)

On February 2, Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov convened an unusual gathering of followers of the Naqshbandi and Qadiriyya Sufi orders in Grozny. Apart from the participants from Chechnya, “thousands” of other Sufis arrived from Dagestan, Ingushetia and other republics of the North Caucasus, Kadyrov claimed via Instagram. The rally of the Sufis, which Kadyrov called a “majlis,” declared that true Muslims should fight the so-called Wahhabis (Salafists), which essentially include everyone who does not belong to the Naqshbandi and Qadiriyya Sufi orders. Kadyrov approved of the actions of the Dagestani government against the Salafists and expressed hope that “the pseudo-Salafists’ attempts to legalize themselves and sneak into various councils will receive a “proper rebuttal” in Ingushetia as well (Instagram.com/p/BBSbompiRod, February 2).

Kadyrov has been unusually active in the past several weeks. First, Chechnya’s governor attacked the Russian opposition in a way that some regarded as essentially death threats. He then turned his attention back to Chechnya’s neighborhood by rallying Sufis of the North Caucasus and presenting himself as the defender of the Sufi dominance in the region. Formally, Russian law does not permit discrimination against religions and sects, as long as they obey Russian laws and are not officially outlawed. In practice, the Russian authorities find ways to discriminate against undesirable religions and denominations. However, no political figure could dare do what Kadyrov has done—declare an official fight against what he called “pseudo-Salafists.”

Kadyrov himself tried to keep a low profile at the rally of the Naqshbandi and Qadiriyya Sufi orders, saying that he attended only as the follower (murid) of Kunta-Haji Kishiev, a Chechen sheikh who lived in the 18th–19th centuries. However, Kadyrov’s statements were quite brusque and bold, as usual: he said that he and his associates swore to fight the Wahhabis “until death” and would pursue them everywhere. “We do not care where they are—in Chechnya, in Ingushetia, in Dagestan or even in North Africa,” he said. “If the locals cannot stop them and if they do not come to their senses and repent, they will get what they are seeking. Everybody will get what he seeks.” Kadyrov then went on to describe the situation in both Dagestan and Ingushetia as precarious in this regard. Chechnya’s ruler in particular said that he was unhappy about Salafists receiving public platforms in the neighboring republics and expressed doubts that the regional authorities were capable of dealing with the problem. Kadyrov warned the Salafists to stop undermining the Sufi saints, or otherwise face repercussions (Kavkazskaya Politika, February 4).

The Sufi rally held in Grozny under Kadyrov’s auspices is significant in at least several respects. First of all, Kadyrov claims to be the defender of the Sufis, who are under increasing pressure from the Salafists. The latter have made substantial inroads into the Muslim population across North Caucasus, where Sufism has traditionally dominated. Secondly, Kadyrov is focusing particularly on neighboring Ingushetia, which is ethnically close to Chechnya and whose separate identity is therefore vulnerable to Kadyrov’s claims that the Chechens and Ingush are the same people.

Religious differences could easily spiral into violence in Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. Ingushetia’s governor, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, hastily called on the residents of his republic to stay calm and stop attacking those who have different religious beliefs. Instead of accusing the young people of rejecting the old way of worship, Yevkurov asked the religious leaders to initiate a dialogue and resolve their differences (Facebook.com, February 4). The Ingush civil activist Magomed Mutsolgov appealed to Russian law enforcement officials, asking them to provide a “legal assessment” of Kadyrov’s statements. In Mutsolgov’s opinion, Kadyrov made incendiary comments against all the Muslim religious groups that do not belong to the Naqshbandi and Qadiriyya Sufi orders, which is a criminal offense (Kavkazsky Uzel, February 4). Ingush religious leaders also addressed the Russian authorities, asking them to stop Kadyrov’s incendiary activities (06portal.ru, February 7).

Kadyrov’s earlier attacks on the Russian opposition caused a significant uproar in Russia. The Kremlin seemed to justify his comments, while not overtly endorsing them. Now, Kadyrov seems to have identified a safer area for the expansion of his influence—the North Caucasus and Islam in the region. Moscow has supported “traditional Islam” in the North Caucasus in its attempt to hold back and eliminate the Salafist type of Islam in the region. Salafists are often equated with the insurgency; but perhaps most importantly, the Salafists are not under control of the authorities—something the Russian government does not tolerate. In fact, the very reason for the popularity of the Salafists may be that they are relatively independent of the government. Thus, Moscow should presumably support Kadyrov’s crusade against the “wrong” Islam. However, if Moscow supports Kadyrov and his crusaders, it will expand his influence, along with that of Sufism. Ironically, the North Caucasian regional governors, especially Ingushetia’s Yevkurov, find themselves in the position of endorsing the pan-Islamist teaching of Salafism rather than the local-based Sufism, because the latter is used by Kadyrov to undermine their authority. It is unclear what position Moscow will take. On the one hand, Moscow probably has no interest in seeing the expansion of Kadyrov’s influence beyond Chechnya but, at the same time, is afraid of a religious teaching it does not control. Intentionally or not, Kadyrov put Moscow in the position that its influence in the North Caucasus will be undermined whatever move it takes.