I don’t think I was alone in assuming that the Chechen Republic’s bigger-than-life, flamboyant, authoritarian president, Ramzan Kadyrov, would stay in office as long as he possibly could, whether by hook or by crook. He is just the type we would expect to bend every rule to try to keep himself in power past his constitutional expiration date, just like (to take two examples in the news this week) Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni or Bolivia’s Evo Morales—or, indeed, like Kadyrov’s sponsor, protector, and ally, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
But I was wrong, and the rest of the world was surprised too when Kadyrov told the media on February 27th that when his term of office ends in April he will step aside and retire from politics. “My time is past,” he said. “Every human has a limit. I believe Kadyrov has passed his peak.” (Like his pet attack-dog Tarzan’s namesake, Kadyrov likes to refer to himself in the third person.) “Family, personal life, Islamic studies,” is how he summed up his plans for retirement. The following day he pleaded with the public to cancel planned rallies to get him to change his mind.
|Kadyrov and Tarzan|
Perhaps it had something to do with the report released four days earlier by a leader in Russia’s political opposition (such as it is), Ilya Yashin, who runs a protest group called Solidardost (its name, meaning “solidarity,” inspired by Poland’s anti-Soviet mass movement from the 1980s, Solidarność). That document described Kadyrov—utterly accurately—as a virtual dictator of a regime that is in most concrete ways a de facto autonomous state (de jure, it is a republic within the Russian Federation, one which does significant damage to Russia’s international reputation (such as it is), and threatens to do worse. Yashin referred to Kadyrov’s Islamist autocracy and his much-flaunted lavish lifestyle enabled by corruption and embezzlement. He wondered aloud how smart Putin was to allow Kadyrov to run his own separate military, answerable only to himself, which fights as a separate state military in conflicts such as the civil war in Syria, where Putin and Kadyrov back the embattled Shi’a Arab dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Could this private army one day turn on Russia itself, as it did in the Chechen Wars?
|Kadyrov’s Instagram account is one of the strangest places on the Internet.|
There are good reasons why Putin might not be all that happy with Kadyrov lately. First and foremost perhaps is Kadyrov’s quiet takeover this month of the oil firm Chechenneftekhimprom, detaching it from its Russian parent company Rosneft and putting it under direct Chechen Republic control. This effectively meant Kadyrov would own it after the transfer is completed in March. Chechenneftekhimprom oversees nearly all of Chechnya’s energy industry. Chechen operations constitute only 0.23% of Rosneft’s total oil extraction, and lower prices of Siberian oil have made them less profitable, but for tiny Chechnya, local control of the resource makes de facto independence more viable. Control of oil resources was a major struggle in the Chechen wars for independence in the 1990s. It does seem odd that Kadyrov would execute such an economic coup just weeks before he leaves the picture entirely. It’s not too far-fetched to think that when the takeover was planned he hadn’t yet decided to step aside. Did the oil grab finally push Putin to the point where he decided that Kadyrov had to go?
|In a viral video he created, Kadyrov, on prayer mat,|
faces down—and later grapples with—a serpent representing radical Islam.
Chechnya and the Kadyrovs: a short history lesson
The Chechen people, like other peoples of the North Caucasus region, are mostly Muslim, and they came under Moscow’s control only in the 1870s, when they were wrested from the Ottoman Empire’s sphere of influence as part of the general Czarist push to dominate the Black Sea at Turkey’s expense. (Warm-water ports have always been a constant overriding preoccupation in Russian foreign policy. It’s hard being an empire or a superpower when the only harbors you can set sail from, other than the Black Sea—whose exit is controlled by Turkey—are St. Petersburg (which is at the mercy of the Swedish and Danish waters that have to be passed through on the way to the open sea) and ice-bound Vladivostok in Siberia.) The Czars held onto the North Caucasus brutally and with difficulty. Most of the dirty work was delegated to Cossacks. It is very arguable that the tactics Russia used in this era against the Chechens and their neighbors amounted to genocide.
During the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917, the North Caucasus peoples rebelled and tried to establish a rival Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus in alliance with the Ottomans. It was even diplomatically recognized by Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and two other newly declared states, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The ruling Bolsheviks in Moscow promised the Mountain Republic that they could keep their autonomy if they helped defeat the Mensheviks. Chechens dutifully helped defeat the Mensheviks, but then the Bolsheviks reneged on their promise. Chechnya became a mere “autonomous” okrug (district) within the Mountain “Autonomous” Soviet Socialist Republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. What this meant is that, like the rest of the U.S.S.R. it was ruled directly by the party dictatorship in Moscow.
After the Second World War, Chechens were accused of having sided with the Nazis. (Indeed, some did; mostly, they were just trying to survive.) Along with other groups like the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks, they were forcibly removed by Josef Stalin to points east, in Siberia and the Central Asian republics. During this ordeal, somewhere between a third and a half of the Chechen and Ingush nations died from executions, starvation, and cruelty in the work camps. (It was during the Chechen diaspora in the Kyrgyz S.S.R. that the Tsarnaev family nursed a resentment toward Russians and Christians; generations later, in 2013, two of their grandchildren in the United States would carry out a bombing attack on the Boston Marathon.)
|Hundreds of thousands of Chechens were deported by Stalin in 1944;|
almost half did not survive the ordeal.
|Dzhokar Dudayev, independent Chechnya’s first leader|
|Grozny, the Chechen capital, in 1995, courtesy of Vladimir Putin|
A turning point in the war came early on, when Kadyrov switched sides and brought his vast extended family of militiamen into the pro-Russian camp. It may never be clear in what order things happened here. Perhaps it was Putin who initially convinced Kadyrov that if he betrayed the more Islamist fighters (like the radical separatist Chechens who carried out the Beslan school siege in late 2004), then he would allow Chechnya to be his personal fief as long as it had a Russian flag flying over it too. Or perhaps the deal was made with his son Ramzan after the elder Kadyrov’s assassination (by whom?) in early 2004.
Anyway, in the end that is what happened: from 2007 until now, Ramzan Kadyrov has been allowed to run Chechnya any way he pleases. He imposes a form of shari’a law which tolerates polygamy and honor killings, he loots the treasury so that he can live like a medieval king, and in return Putin has rebuilt Grozny with massive projects like Europe’s largest mosque and Kadyrov makes sure to fix local elections in Putin’s favor, such as the national vote in 2012 when an absurd 99.89% of Chechens supposedly voted for Putin—the man who practically bombed their country off the map only a few years earlier. But most of all, Kadyrov’s personal army has served as a crack battalion much like the old-style Cossacks (who still exist also), doing battle wherever the Czar—I mean, Putin—feels Russian interests are at stake.
|Kadyrov’s father’s assassination, at a military parade in 2004,|
was captured on Russian television.
|Chechen mercenaries go wherever Russian—not Chechen—interests are threatened.|
In his denial, Kadyrov called all talk of such passports “fantasies,” adding, “There is only one passport in our country—citizen of Russia!” I would guess that Kadyrov was quickly forced to backtrack after a warning from the Kremlin that such a passport requirement would be baldly unconstitutional. But why this, and why now, when Chechnya is already run under virtual shari’a? Were the spiritual passports an attempt to mollify anti-Kadyrov sentiment among the more radical sectors of Chechnya? Or was Kadyrov communicating to Putin that, despite their relationship, he is still a Muslim first? We may never know.
In any case it is ironic that not long before Kadyrov’s announcement, Akhmed Zakayev, the moderate prime-minister-in-exile of the old self-declared Chechen Republic of Iskerria—the anti-Russian separatist entity with which the Kadyrovs used to be aligned—told Radio Free Europe in February that Kadyrov is “here to stay.” According to Zakayev, who lives in London, this was because of Chechnya’s fiercely loyal private armed forces: “Any attempt to remove Kadyrov by decree or to appoint another leader of the republic would spark uproar in Kadyrov’s ranks. In order to remove him, security forces would need to conduct operational measures within his close circle. If they don’t, the reaction will be very negative and Putin won’t be able to get rid of him with a simple decree or a stroke of the pen.”
|Eventually, Kadyrov will have to get friends wherever he can find them.|
That, of course, was all said before Kadyrov said he would leave politics. Now, though, the questions are many. Who will replace Kadyrov? Will his successor be a more conventional republican president, or will Chechnya still be an autonomous Islamic statelet? Will Putin appoint a president of the republic, as he does in the case of the more volatile nationalities? To whom will Kadyrov’s army be loyal? Will they in reality be the ones who choose Kadyrov’s replacement? Or is Kadyrov’s talk of leaving politics a ruse? Will he really run things from behind the scenes? Or will there be a manufactured crisis between now and April to justify extending his term or instituting emergency powers?
|Yes, they’re throwing money at him. Like he needs it.|
[You can read in detail about Chechnya and other sovereignty and independence movements both famous and obscure in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar. The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon. Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]