The Failure Of “chechenization”

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 31

The explosion in Grozny on May 9, 2004 threw the Russian leadership into disarray. The death of Akhmad Kadyrov, as well as the drastic deterioration of the security situation in Chechnya that followed, represented the first serious challenge to Vladimir Putin during his second term. These events have cast doubt on the basic premises of the “Chechenization” policy that Putin has consistently pursued despite opposition from major elements of the “siloviki” security agencies. They also dealt a vicious blow to Putin’s confidence: Just two days earlier, in his May 7 inaugural speech, Putin had stated that in Chechnya “we have stopped the threat of international terrorism”—presenting this as his personal achievement.

The “Chechenization” strategy tried to bring the Chechen Republic into the constitutional field of Russia in accordance with a scenario of “referendum-presidential elections-parliamentary elections.” One of its main components was “Kadyrovization,” the formation of a monocentric regime based on institutions closely controlled by the Kadyrov clan. Kadyrov was to transform the counterterrorist operation first into an internal Chechen conflict and then into a battle of the local police against a so-called “handful of militants.”

The main guarantor of “Kadyrovization” as well as of “Chechenization” was Putin, who made a long-term bet on Kadyrov. Putin elevated the then mufti of Chechnya into top-level politics in 2000, when he praised Kadyrov’s assistance to the federal forces during the second Chechen war. Since then, Putin has never denied his own personal responsibility for Kadyrov; until the latter’s death he continuously maintained close contact with him. This enabled Kadyrov to strengthen his positions in the republic and to circumvent not only federal government’s military structures but also its civilian ones, such as the office of the representative of the president in the Southern Federal District. The Kremlin thus consistently gave Kadyrov an open field for his political operations within the republic. For example, during last fall’s presidential campaign in Chechnya, the opportunity to run was simply denied to all the prominent political figures who were pro-Moscow but had uneasy relationships with Kadyrov.

So a natural question arises: Why was there so much support for Akhmad Kadyrov? The answer lies in the current Kremlin’s notorious concept of a strong “vertical” of power. From the Kremlin’s standpoint, the former mufti became a highly visible example of the effectiveness of the federal center’s policies even under such difficult conditions as Chechnya’s. Kadyrov occupied the summit of the republic’s vertical of power—a vertical which could not count on significant popular support but which possessed its own armed units and which enjoyed full support from the federal center. Kadyrov not only managed to produce some victories in the war against the guerrillas, but also consistently emphasized his personal loyalty to Putin. This loyalty sometimes bordered on the absurd: On one occasion, Kadyrov even proposed to have Putin named as Russia’s president for life.

But after the May 9 explosion, it became clear that “Kadyrovization,” by thwarting the development of a polycentric model more suitable to the republic, has in fact produced serious political problems for the federal center’s entire policy in Chechnya. The regime installed with direct support from Moscow has turned out to be a kind of privately held corporation, in which the major officers are members of Kadyrov’s “family.” It is those “family” members who control the local security services, all major channels for the allocation of federal subsidies and other funds, and a significant portion of the revenue from illegal petroleum sales. The president’s security service has metastasized into a formation of thousands of gunmen wearing Russian uniforms but selected strictly according to their personal loyalty to the Kadyrovs.

During the reign of the elder Kadyrov, he and his allies managed gradually to remove both from the republic’s government and from the local administrations almost everyone who did not agree with his policies. The most prominent figures of the Chechen establishment now live in Moscow, and many of them are no longer interested in participating in the political processes in Chechnya because they know that such efforts, as a rule, would provoke a hostile reaction from Kadyrov’s supporters—and also displeasure from the political bosses in Moscow.

After Akhmad’s death, the members of his “family” tried to implement the “Azerbaijani model” of succession, transferring power from father to son. Several public rituals took place—such as political meetings, demonstrations, and parades of units of the presidential security service—to emphasize the necessity of transferring power to the younger Kadyrov. Finally, the State Council of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration appealed to Putin to take “all measures needed to remove obstacles to the registration of Ramzan Kadyrov as a candidate for the post of the head of the republic.” But the Kremlin could not blatantly ignore the new Chechen constitution’s age requirement that stipulates the president should be at least 30 years old, whereas Ramzan is not even 28, so it put a halt to these local initiatives.

Of course the Kremlin could introduce direct presidential rule in Chechnya—all the more since many politicians both in Chechnya and in Russia have been urging this—but such a step would be tantamount to admitting that the strategy of “Chechenization” has definitively failed. Instead, the Putin administration evidently decided to try staging an election that would produce a victor capable of continuing to put the federal center’s policies into effect. Another equally important task facing that candidate would be to win the acceptance of the Kadyrov “family” and especially of Ramzan’s gunmen. From their meetings with Ramzan and Sergei Abramov, the republic’s acting president, and from their consultations with Chechen politicians and entrepreneurs, the Kremlin decision-makers became convinced of the necessity of proclaiming at least for public consumption that the Kremlin would prefer an ally of Akhmad Kadyrov who would continue his policies. The Putin administration has ever since been sounding the refrain of the “succession” of power, a refrain that has been repeated at all levels of the Russian government. “Succession,” of course, requires a specific successor, and apparently that figure will be Alu Alkhanov, the interior minister of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration.

Inside Chechnya all this looks like a policy of concessions to the Kadyrovites. In recent weeks, Ramzan has made several bold public statements. One was an ultimatum in which he told the guerrillas that they had three days left in which to surrender. In another he raised the idea of collective responsibility for crimes committed by the “bandits,” implying that relatives of guerrillas should be punished; if existing laws do not authorize this, he proposed that the State Duma should enact new legislation. In fact, this idea of collective responsibility has already been practiced for a long time by Ramzan and his gang; he now simply wants to make it legal. This is not just propaganda, but a way to show everyone who the real boss is in Chechnya.

Against this background, Putin’s words about creating a free society of free people in Russia sound like a cynical ploy. Paradoxically, the Kremlin has turned out to be the hostage of its own policy. It is forced to tolerate the presence in Chechnya of sizable armed bands controlled only by Ramzan Kadyrov, not by federal structures. The Kremlin deliberately closes its eyes to Ramzan’s “unruly behavior” because any attempt to rein in his ambitions might alarm his allies, leading to armed clashes and the emergence of new armed bands. On the other hand, the continuing impunity of the younger Kadyrov and his allies may eventually result in a situation where they are no longer controlled at all by the federal center. If that happens, there will be an even greater chance of an upsurge in popular resentment that could sweep from power not only the Kadyrov gang but also the republic’s entire pro-Russian power structure.

After the death of the elder Kadyrov, the authorities immediately gave his memory the image of sacred martyrdom—ignoring the massive increases in corruption which took place under his rule. Federal subsidies intended for social services and economic rebuilding were diverted into the pockets of plunderers. It is well known both inside and outside Chechnya how the leaders of the pro-Moscow administration and its bureaucratic elite indulge themselves by blatantly disregarding all moral norms and traditions. They organize lavish weddings for their offspring at the most luxurious restaurants in Moscow. Living in luxurious houses and prestigious apartments, they seem to be indifferent to devastated and impoverished Chechnya; many of them visit the republic only occasionally, spending most of their time in Moscow or other Russian cities. Even Putin, during his visit to Chechnya after the elder Kadyrov’s death, admitted how horrible Grozny looked from his helicopter. By saying this, the president of Russia in effect confirmed that the tens of billions of rubles sent to Chechnya had simply disappeared.

The Chechen populace knows all too well that corrupt bureaucrats are using the republic’s extraordinary circumstances as a pretext for robbery, harnessing their administrative and police resources to exploit those without political connections. The populace increasingly resents the actions of Ramzan and his “guardsmen,” who “receive tributes” from entrepreneurs and from state-funded organizations, who take as hostages the relatives of guerrillas—and even, according to human-rights activists, routinely kidnap people for ransom. According to these activists, Ramzan has personally participated in torture of those suspected of disloyalty.

To many in the federal center it is now clear that Ramzan Kadyrov is unbalanced and unqualified, and that he is not capable of building and maintaining a consensus even within the ranks of the pro-Moscow administration’s cabinet members and administrative officials. Even supporters of his father have too often found themselves subjected to his humiliations, insults and forced monetary contributions. Akhmad Kadyrov was the indispensable cornerstone of the pro-Moscow administration as built by him and Putin, and his death exposed the extreme weakness of the Kremlin’s strategy. The political and administrative machinery was so paralyzed by his death that at first Moscow’s actions looked like an attempt to transfer power to the younger Kadyrov. But the political cloning of Akhmad Kadyrov now seems most unlikely. The Kremlin will no longer tolerate the existence of a “unipolar” regime in Chechnya. Instead Moscow will implement a plan that includes “checks and balances,” in which the Chechen president’s authority will be limited by independent security structures, parliament, etc. In the present conditions in Chechnya the balance of interests is maintained by federal structures and troops.

In order to implement this plan the Kremlin is actively seeking a suitable candidate—one who will carry out its policies in a consistent, disciplined fashion. The head of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration’s Interior Ministry, Alu Alkhanov is clearly being groomed for such a role. Many experts believe that the Kremlin has now definitively chosen him, a view that is supported by the fact that the Russian print and electronic media are conducting an energetic propaganda campaign on behalf of his candidacy.

And yet it is still not fully clear that Alkhanov is Moscow’s only candidate; it is more likely that he is the choice of only one of Moscow’s various power centers. Also, to place one’s entire stake on just one man, even at the opening stage of the campaign, is risky: The Kremlin understands that this might create problems in the future. From Moscow’s standpoint it is desirable that both the candidate himself and the currently dominant Kadyrovite faction in Chechnya should see that the Kremlin has other options. Thus it makes sense to expect the emergence of several candidates, all equally suitable. The struggle between them will be treated by the Kremlin as an internal affair, harmless and even helpful for the purpose of making the Chechen establishment tractable.

Among such potential candidates is Federal Security Service (FSB) general Said-Selim Peshkhoev, deputy representative of the president in the Southern Federal District, who was actually considered as a possible candidate during the last campaign. The nomination of Ruslan Yamadayev, another Chechen general and presently a member of the State Duma, is also possible. It should be recalled that Yamadayev’s harsh criticisms of General Vladimir Shamanov were supported by many in Chechnya. His candidacy could be used as a subtle maneuver to signal that to a certain extent it is now permissible to criticize directly the federal military and other federal structures. After the shameful “Ulman case” [see Chechnya Weekly, May 5] such a move would be quite appropriate.

But we cannot rule another scenario, in which the elections are not held and direct presidential rule is introduced instead—although it should be noted that such a scenario is possible only under exceptionally difficult circumstances. Putin has said that there will be elections, so there will be: The president will not allow any display of weakness on his own part. Nevertheless, the Kremlin will use these elections to establish a new structure of power in Chechnya, in which the federal center is not staking its entire investment on just one leader. Preparations for parliamentary elections in Chechnya are also now under way, with the idea that the parliament will act as a counterweight to the president. Most important is that the federal center is rushing to create an opposition, negotiating on this subject with leading Chechens. Perhaps the Kremlin actually realizes the futility of its policy of “Chechenization” based on a small circle of allies who have been pursuing their own greedy interests and thus provoking popular resentment and even hatred.

But without the complete removal the Kadyrov gang, without the creation of an appropriate political environment—and without negotiations, at long last, with those who are ready for them—the situation in Chechnya resembles a crude caricature of a genuine civil society, an obvious artifact of “managed democracy.” One can quickly cover a prison with a democratic facade, but that will not change the dark reality inside.