Monday, February 29, 2016

End of an Era: Ramzan Kadyrov’s Decision to Step Aside Leaves a Power Vacuum, and Raises Questions

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
But why is he stepping aside, instead of, say, grooming a close advisor as a successor and continuing things from a nominally secondary position—the way Putin did when he got around term limits by switching places with his prime minister Dmitri Medvedev for a term?  In the Russian and Chechen political world, no one would have so much as blinked an eye.

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.
Yashin also asserted what most aware people not blinded by Putinist propaganda already believe: that there is “no doubt” that armed thugs under Kadyrov’s personal direction assassinated the dissident leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow last year.  Kadyrov responded to Yashin’s report on his favored channel of communication, Instagram, dismissing the accusations as “blather.”  But maybe he noticed that the Kremlin did not exactly leap to his defense when the report hit the public.  (Compare this to the case of the anti-Putin dissident Andrei Piontkovsky, who fled the country this month after his criticism of the Putin–Kadyrov political friendship prompted Putinists in parliament to brand his inquiries “an incitement to separatism and extremism.”)

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.
Or perhaps the Moscow–Grozny axis had simply become weighed down by too many historical, political, and ideological contradictions.  In fact, it is still baffling that the alliance ever existed.  To understand why, a quick history lesson.

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.
Nikita Khrushchev, in the 1950s, reversed many of Stalin’s more repressive policies toward minorities and allowed Chechens to move home.  Chechnya was part of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic, within Russia, until 1991.  As the fully separate republics of the U.S.S.R., like Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan won independence, the new Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, told republics to “take as much autonomy as you can stand,” and even seemed to be contemplating letting the two most independent-minded republics, Chechnya (which had separated itself from its Ingush half) and Tatarstan, to secede as well.

Dzhokar Dudayev, independent Chechnya’s first leader
A young soon-to-be-ex K.G.B. agent in Yeltsin’s cabinet named Vladimir Putin had other ideas, though.  First as chief of staff and then as a minister responsible for minorities (the same job Stalin had held before becoming party secretary), Putin urged harsh dealing with the independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria that declared itself in 1991.  The proud and eager Chechen rebels fought the underpaid, half-hearted post-Soviet army to a standstill, and by 1994 Chechnya had agreed to join the newly minted Russian Federation but in reality ran itself as a de facto independent state under the rebel leader Dzhokar Dudayev, who dissolved the local parliament and anointed himself dictator.  Dudayev was fiercely Russophobic and steeped in paranoid superstitions; he believed that earthquakes in the Caucasus were caused by diabolical “earthquake machines” in the Kremlin.  Most of his time was spent fighting the rival Chechens who kept trying to overthrow him.  In 1994, Yeltsin had had enough and let Putin try to retake Chechnya, which he did by leveling the capital, Grozny, in a pitiless carpet-bombing campaign that killed tens of thousands.  Dudayev was killed in 1996.

Grozny, the Chechen capital, in 1995, courtesy of Vladimir Putin
There was peace for a while, until 1999, when some of the many foreign Islamic fighters that had flooded into Chechnya in 1994 to fight the Russian infidels needed a new crusade and crossed over the mountain passes into the Russian republic of Dagestan to declare an Islamic State of Dagestan.  It was one thing for Chechnya to be a tiny Islamic-run republic that minded its own business, but Putin, who succeeded Yeltsin as president the following year, would not stand for Islamic radicalism spreading within Russia.  He soundly defeated the Chechens in what came to be known as the Second Chechen War.  His “Gulf of Tonkin”–type pretext was the terrorist demolition of four Moscow apartment buildings in late 1999.  He blamed Chechens, but there is strong evidence that the K.G.B., under Putin’s orders, blew up the buildings to provide a rationale for war.  The new president who took over in 2003, Akhmed Kadyrov (father of Ramzan), was, like Dudayev, under whom he had been chief imam, and like most Chechens, very moderate, even mystical in his Islam.  Most Chechens are traditionally Sufis, with not much use for the doctrinally rigid salafism or Wahhabism emanating from places like Saudi Arabia and Taliban-run Afghanistan.  But by now the Second Chechen War, unlike the first, became a jihad, fought to a great extent by battle-hardened salafists flooding in from all over the Islamic world.

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.
This means that Kadyrov’s fighters have, over the years, aligned themselves with the Armenians against the Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh; with the Serbs against the Bosniaks and Croats in Bosnia and against the Albanians in Kosovo; with the Russians against the Ukrainians and Tatars in Crimea; and, most recently, with the Alawites (and, increasingly, Kurds) against the Sunni Arabs in Syria.  Yes, that means that Kadyrov has been sending the youth of the Chechen nation to kill Muslims in the service of Russian Orthodox Christian colonialism and Islamophobia.  Did that begin to weigh on his conscience?  Or was there an Islamist insurgency preparing itself in Chechnya? or perhaps only the fear of one?

Chechen mercenaries go wherever Russian—not Chechen—interests are threatened.
A clue may lie in a bizarre episode that occurred only eight days before Kadyrov’s announcement, when he was obliged to publicly deny reports the previous day that he had instituted a plan for all young men to obtain “spiritual-moral passports” documenting their Islamic commitments.  The news had appeared on the website of the Chechen parliament and in official government news agencies and had described the initiative as Kadyrov’s own.  The new passports, to be issued to all men aged 14 through 35, would have listed each man’s name, nationality, patrilineal ancestry, clan, denomination (of Islam, of course), and, for Sufis, the individual order (vird) to which he belongs, as well as the names of senior male relatives “responsible” for the holder’s moral behavior.

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.
Another reason Zakayev thought Kadyrov would cling to power is that, if he ever fell out of political favor—and he has lots of enemies, many of them radical Islamists—where would he go?  “Three, four, five months ago,” Zakayev said, “there were still places he could leave for: Turkey, Sunni states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.  He has now lost these possibilities because he supported the conflict in Syria together with Putin and backed and sided with the Shi’a to defend Bashar al-Assad.  By doing this, he has blocked the escape routes that he had spent several years preparing.”

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.
Perhaps Kadyrov tipped his hand a bit when he made his announcement the other day, saying, “Family, personal life, Islamic studies—that’s where I see myself.  If there is a need for me to take in hands a shovel, an assault rifle or a backpack—I can do that.”  Wait, did he say “assault rifle”??  Something tells me it may be a while before we’ve seen the last of Ramzan Kadyrov.

[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.]

1 comment:

  1. I do not know anyone who would be better to deny mania, rather than take it. Especially here this article is talking about it clearly - all doubt go into oblivion. It is not always possible, but it is possible, especially if it is to crave.


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