Ramzan Kadyrov is the most powerful figure in Chechnya. Ordinary Chechens are afraid of him and his thugs, the kadyrovtsy. Even the Russian military forces posted in Chechnya do not dare to oppose the kadyrovsty.
This fear is so widespread that it has become conventional wisdom among observers, journalists, and officials who monitor the situation in the region. Variations on the phrase, “The kadyrovsty are very cruel and powerful, the Chechens now fear them even more than the federals,” have become a journalistic cliché. Hundreds if not thousands of articles have been written about Kadyrov’s “huge” private army.
With Kremlin encouragement, the Russian media are trying to convince the Russian public as well as the international community that Kadyrov and his guards control everything in Chechnya. Late last year rumors started to circulate that Russian President Vladimir Putin planned to appoint Kadyrov to be the new Chechen president instead of Alu Alkhanov, the successor to Chechnya’s first pro-Russian president Akhmad Kadyrov — Ramzan’s father — who was assassinated in May 2004. Some people believe that the only task of the newly elected Chechen parliament will be to confirm such an appointment. Meanwhile, Ramzan is marking time until his 30th birthday, the minimum age for a president according to the Chechen constitution.
However, as the new year began, the Kremlin announced new policies toward Chechnya that could shake Ramzan’s image as a local strongman. This month Commander of Russian Interior Forces Nikolai Rogozhkin met with security officials at Khankala, the main Russian military base in Chechnya. Following the meeting, he announced that new battalions called “North” and “South” would be formed as part of the United Army Group stationed in the republic. Rogozhkin said that the battalions would be staffed on the basis of the Anti-Terrorist Center, currently the official name for Kadyrov’s personal guard (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 13). The two battalions will total up to 1,200 men (the real number of kadyrovtsy) and be directly subordinate to the central commandant’s office of the Interior Forces’ group in Chechnya. It means that Kadyrov will lose control of his people; instead of kadyrovtsy, they will be regular Chechen soldiers of the Russian army under command of Russian officers. Thus, Kadyrov will suffer the fate of Sulim Yamadaev, an influential Chechen field commander who went over to the Russian side at the beginning of the second Chechen war. Yamadaev wound up becoming just another Russian officer, the commander of the “Vostok” battalion, which was formed from his gunmen and incorporated into the 42nd motorized rifle division of the Russian army.
Not only will Kadyrov lose a reliable military force, he will also lose another important tool of political influence: money. On December 21, 2005, Putin put Sergei Ivanov, a deputy prime minister and minister of defense in the Russian government, in charge of the reconstruction of Chechnya. Putin recently met with Kadyrov and Alkhanov in the Kremlin, with Ivanov present. During the meeting Ivanov announced how much money would be spent on the reconstruction of Grozny, the Chechen capital, during the first stage of the government’s plan to develop the Chechen economy (Kommersant, December 22). From now on Alkhanov and Kadyrov must report personally to Ivanov how every ruble from the government budget is to be spent in Chechnya. There will be no more free spending for Ramzan.
The latest serious changes in the Chechen course mean that the Russian authorities are giving up their efforts to turn the problem over to reliable local figures. This policy, “Chechenization,” failed to defeat the insurgency or to establish a loyal and stable pro-Russian regime in the republic. Russian troops still lose servicemen every day due to shoot-outs, ambushes, and roadside bombs. The money from the budget still goes into the hands of the rebels, and the war is spreading further and further away from the Chechen borders.
After the meeting in Khankala, Gen. Rogozhkin said, “The value and the difficulty of the military tasks will increase this year” (kavkaz-strana.ru, January 13). Specifically, the Russian army group will have to stretch its reserves across the entire Caucasus region, as a rebel attack could feasibly occur anywhere. The ongoing guerilla warfare in Chechnya will continue to occupy Russian forces that could be deployed in other locations along the Caucasian front.
While Moscow sought “Chechenization,” the rebel’s strategy to extend the war to the entire North Caucasus has prevailed. Russian security officials, who realize that they could face a humiliating defeat in the North Caucasus in near future, are well away of this fact, but the Kremlin cannot officially declare the failure of Chechenization without loosing face.
In Moscow’s view, Kadyrov’s task is to make as many statements as possible to draw public attention toward him — and away from the true situation in the republic. Strategists in the Kremlin apparently believe that this tactic will strengthen the myth of Kadyrov’s rising power. Recently Kadyrov has made several useless statements just to remain in the public eye. He promised a $10 million reward for Shamil Basaev’s head, said he favors polygamy in Chechnya, called upon the Chechens to follow the moral principles of Islam and Chechen traditions, and promised to fight alcohol abuse and drug addiction. During the recent Muslim holiday he organized a magnificent show of sacrificing dozens of camels and sheep in Tsentoroi, his heavily guarded native village.
Nevertheless, the dynamic public persona of Ramzan Kadyrov will not hide the true picture: the pro-Russian Chechen leaders have failed to improve the situation and lost their credibility in the eyes of the Kremlin.