Modern Chechnya bears little resemblance to the war-torn republic of the 1990s and early 2000s. Its remarkable recovery is largely the result of a backroom deal between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the late Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of Chechnya’s current ruler. Since 2000, the agreement has not only undergirded the special relationship between Grozny and Moscow, but has served as a model for Chechnya’s internal development. It has effectively created a feudal or colonial relationship, through which Chechnya’s leaders have received massive support and exceptional privileges from Moscow, in exchange for their loyalty and compliance with pre-established conditions.
This unwritten agreement between Moscow and Chechnya has functioned for sixteen years. It survived the 2004 assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov, as well as the interregnum that preceded his son Ramzan’s ascension to power in 2007. However, throughout these years, the relationship has faced major opposition—and today’s problems are a result of deep-seated, unresolved tensions.
Although Ramzan Kadyrov was reelected as leader of Chechnya in September 2016 with about 98 percent of the vote, Moscow no longer feels obligated to maintain relations with Chechnya on Kadyrov’s terms. Fearing a loss of leverage in the region, Putin has revised the contract—this time, on Moscow’s terms. Kadyrov is reckoning with the partial downgrading of Chechnya’s extraterritorial status and his own personal privileges. Yet both sides still need one another. Kadyrov appears willing to accept this arrangement, provided that the Kremlin takes his concerns seriously. The new contract governing the relationship will likely prevail for many years to come.
The First Contract
Contrary to popular belief, the Chechen problem did not emerge in response to the Russian federalization of the early 1990s. Unlike the Republic of Tatarstan—which embraced an asymmetric model of ties within the Russian Federation system and has retained a greater degree of independence from Moscow than other republics—Chechnya did not establish the same level of localized control. In fact, Chechnya did not consistently follow any particular model. While its leaders interpreted the Tatarstan model according to their own purposes, Chechnya as a whole transitioned from a demand for elite autonomy—in terms of local political and economic control—to a push for comprehensive independence from Moscow. From the early 1990s until the end of the Second Chechen War in 2000, this push for independence centered on the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, a Chechen-declared government that was not recognized by the Russian Federation.
The installment of Akhmad Kadyrov after the second war ended in 2000 was a continuation of the Kremlin’s Chechenization policy, which had long sought to pit prominent figures in the region against one another. On the eve of the First Chechen War in November 1994, the Kremlin attempted to organize an armed insurrection of opposition forces against the then president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Dzhokhar Dudayev. After this failed, Moscow created an alternative government by dispatching handpicked Chechens from the Russian capital. First, Moscow appointed Salambek Khadzhiyev as prime minister of Chechnya. Following his short-lived tenure, Doku Zavgayev took over as head of the republic. Unfortunately, neither Khadzhiyev nor Zavgayev commanded any authority beyond the center of Grozny. The Kremlin’s attempt to solve the Chechen problem with an outdated approach of imperial rule had failed.
Despite the region’s outsized prominence, Chechnya was never treated as a federal-level issue under former Russian president Boris Yeltsin or in the early years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Even compared to Tatarstan, which at the time was considered a far more important element within Russia’s federal structure, Chechnya was a peripheral issue. Moscow didn’t formulate a fully articulated Chechenization policy; instead, what emerged was basically an adaptation of early colonial practices. The Kremlin favored one of the local clans, which in turn expected the support of the central government in its conflicts with rivals. Both parties sought to eliminate competitors; this became the basis of the contractual relationship, first with Akhmad Kadyrov and later with his son Ramzan.
Until investing in the elder Kadyrov, the Kremlin did not have good opportunities to support a viable alternative government in Ichkeria. The chance arose in the interwar period—largely due to the fragmentation of the Chechen elites—but reliable partners did not materialize until hostilities resumed in 1999. For Moscow, local partners needed to be militarily capable. By the beginning of the second campaign, finding a local military force had become the primary objective for Russian security forces.
During this time, the Kremlin first sought influence on the ground through the Yamadayev brothers. Ruslan, Dzhabrail, and Sulim Yamadayev were Chechen military leaders who controlled the town of Gudermes and other mountainous areas. They split with the Chechen separatist leader Shamil Basayev almost immediately after the first war, and their counterparts in Moscow took their record of anti-Russian combat in stride. (That the Yamadayevs had fought Russian forces was no more noteworthy than, say, the fact that most adult Chechens were born in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic after the mass expulsion from Chechnya under Joseph Stalin.) The Yamadayevs appeared, by all measures, to fit the profile of people who could exercise real control in the republic.
At the time, Moscow did not value what was at stake politically to the same degree that it would later on. The Yamadayevs looked down on Akhmad Kadyrov in the fashion of tribal chiefs spiting a powerless politician dependent on the tribe’s military might. Ramzan was viewed as an assistant to his father, patiently waiting his turn to step into power. Lacking significant military resources, even with the Kremlin’s support, Akhmad Kadyrov might have ended up like his predecessors, and a series of crises would have eventually delivered a different leader for Chechnya. Perhaps instead of Kadyrov—a figure of dubious religious and political leanings, prone to negotiations and intrigue—a military- or criminal-type leader with dictatorial tendencies would have come to power.
As it turned out, however, the elder Kadyrov managed to gain power and keep it until his death.
During the interwar period, Chechen independence fighters divided the spoils of victory. Under the stewardship of former Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya had contended with an ideological void, a power vacuum, a spike in kidnappings, and internal strife. It was near the end of this period that Akhmad Kadyrov sided with the federal government and eventually gained power, yet another move in a series of political intrigues. Then with the elder Kadyrov’s 2004 assassination, Moscow once again saw an opportunity to maintain firm federal control over Chechnya. And so, the Kremlin’s contract with Akhmad Kadyrov outlived him. It was rewritten and retrofitted for his son Ramzan.
Ramzan Kadyrov’s Approach to Chechnya
Following in his father’s footsteps, Ramzan Kadyrov did not immediately emerge as a charismatic leader. He lacked the public perception of authority that the Russian public accorded to Vladimir Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Nevertheless, Kadyrov’s opponents, especially the remaining human rights activists in Chechnya, warned observers early on not to underestimate him. Ramzan might not have come across as an intellectual, but his political motives were clear.
Like the Yamadayevs before him, Ramzan liked to claim that he had once gone toe-to-toe with Russian forces. “We don’t conceal the fact that we once fought against Russia,” he reportedly once said. “I also fought in the First War. Everyone knows that. I first picked up a rifle when I was only sixteen. Dzhokhar [Dudayev] then duped us with his call to protect our homeland. So we started fighting, but when we understood that this is all baloney, that we have to live in peace with Russia, we quit.” However, sources close to Dudayev are skeptical about then-seventeen-year-old Kadyrov’s participation in the first Chechen campaign. They may well be right: Ramzan better fits the model of Chechens who fought in the second campaign and came of age between the wars. This generation actually harbored few illusions about Chechen independence. Ramzan moved toward Moscow much more energetically and with a much clearer understanding of the position he had inherited—his decision to side with federal authorities had far less to do with ideological leanings.
Stripping Chechnya of Ideology
Chechen separatism largely lost its ideological appeal during the interwar chaos of the late 1990s, and it had disappeared from public discourse by the time the Second Chechen War broke out in 1999. Even during the first war, separatist fervor had waned, as Chechens perceived the war to be a direct result of the Soviet collapse rather than the product of surging grassroots support for independence. Only when Russian troops began amassing throughout the republic did Chechens unite—not in a move for sovereignty, but in opposition to the occupation. It was in this morass that the concept of a war for national liberation emerged.
During the Second Chechen War, the armed underground resistance turned against Russian troops in similar fashion. Even though it began with actors having a diverse range of social statuses and political views, the movement gradually coalesced around the idea of an Islamic state. The goal of Islamic statehood provided flexibility, allowing the conflicting motives of resistance fighters to be adapted and harmonized. But the push for a Caucasus emirate failed to generate adequate social support or a viable political and military future, and it was only a matter of time before the group ran out of steam.
For most Chechens, there was a perceived gap between a putative desire for greater personal freedoms and their willingness to side with Akhmad Kadyrov’s regime. As it were, most Chechens were simply pleased the war was finally over. More broadly, though, the federal government displayed a willingness not to get involved in day-to-day matters, allowing Chechen society to be regulated by traditional mechanisms and permitting the inclusion of adat, or local customary practices. The greatest innovation in Kadyrov’s leadership model was the incorporation of Chechen nationalism into the system of national patriotism advocating Russia as a great power. Likewise, Islam was incorporated into the nation’s broader spiritual underpinnings, albeit under the overarching stewardship of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Ramzan Kadyrov had a chance to observe the generations that fought both wars, and he carefully adapted various leadership styles and ideologies. As Ramzan rose, a few contributing factors conspired to cement his power, most notably Putin’s personalized regime and the Kremlin’s willingness to pay any price for stability in Chechnya.
It soon became clear after he reached the helm of the republic that Ramzan Kadyrov was far better at Chechenization than any of his predecessors, including his father. Ramzan was able to construct a rigid hierarchical structure that controlled the security situation. Law enforcement and military personnel reported directly to him. He also carefully managed relations among the elites. In the political realm, popular demands were effectively ignored. For the most part, average people made very simple demands of the regime: most of these concerned freedom of movement and the security of citizens. Indeed, they mostly wanted to be protected from federal troops. Removing federal checkpoints was not just a cause for celebration in Chechnya, but a notable political victory for Ramzan Kadyrov. As for any remaining guerilla warfare, support for the die-hard fighters continued to wane.
Meanwhile, removing nationalist ideology from Chechnya helped legitimize Ramzan Kadyrov and reintegrate Chechnya into the Russian Federation. And as Kadyrov’s grip hardened, a tacit agreement arose: Chechens stopped asking too many questions and agreed to start with a clean slate. For his part, Kadyrov sought to create tolerable living conditions comparable to other regions in Russia, which had not experienced civil conflict. Meanwhile, Moscow agreed to fund economic development—and stay out of Chechnya, to the greatest extent possible. This division of labor was the original source of the formula for a new Chechen federalist existence and powered it for a considerable period of time.
Personalized Politics and a Horizontal Power Vertical
Akhmad Kadyrov’s death led to the emergence of a new understanding between the center and the regions. Moscow abolished historically popular methods of control, which had been used throughout the Soviet era. Direct appointments of local governors and Moscow’s use of the second secretary position (deputies sent from the Kremlin to aid the local chiefs of the republics) were both abolished. Instead, Ramzan Kadyrov pushed the idea of a personal symbiosis between the local leader and the federal center—an equal partnership tailor-made for Putin’s burgeoning system of personalized power.
To be sure, the younger Kadyrov had more to gain from such an arrangement with Moscow than the Kremlin. Peace in Chechnya, while an outsized accomplishment, was only one of Putin’s achievements at the time. But Kadyrov had a real knack for constantly exploiting the president’s successes to his own advantage. The Kremlin was forced to share credit for Chechen successes with Kadyrov, and the Chechen leader was all too happy to receive recognition as well. It soon became apparent that with Kadyrov, much like with Lukashenko, Putin was actually in a trap. Just like the Belarusian president, Kadyrov was able to construct a form of co-dependency in which the stronger player, Moscow, grew more and more dependent on its junior partner.
Each of Kadyrov’s successes raised his stature and made Moscow that much more dependent on the Chechen leader’s achievements. For instance, Kadyrov was a central player in the restoration of Chechnya’s housing infrastructure, much of which was handled by the private sector. While Moscow didn’t pick up the full tab for reconstruction, its contribution was more than sufficient to please Grozny. Other regions of Chechnya operated under the same scheme. In a private meeting in 2010, the deputy head of one mountainous village described a typical arrangement: the newly appointed head of local administration, along with a business associate, gave the village a loan, which the village easily repaid by using federal funds. The number of such schemes mushroomed once Chechen officials realized that Moscow was perfectly happy to foot the bill.
The privileges Kadyrov received from Moscow extended to counterinsurgency operations. To quell opposition forces, Kadyrov was given a free hand on tactics—from mass arrests to demolishing houses that belonged to the families of militants. While there is no data on the exact number of militants who have surrendered, in early 2015 Kadyrov estimated that upward of 7,000 individuals had disavowed armed struggle.
As the number of remaining fighters shrank, the pool for recruiting personnel for the Chechen security forces grew. Recruitment helped expand Ramzan’s private army, which grew out of Akhmad Kadyrov’s personal guard. This contingent was a private, family-run army stationed throughout the republic. Many of these forces were formally legalized in 2004 after the elder Kadyrov’s assassination. The top command consisted of Kadyrov’s relatives and neighbors. Several units were integrated into the state law enforcement and security agencies, including the Second Road Patrol Regiment of the Police, the so-called Oil Regiment, the Anti-Terrorist Center, and the widely known Sever (North) and Yug (South) Battalions.
Chechnya’s ideological void was readily discernible in the ranks of these burgeoning security services. Grozny quickly realized that a large number of young Chechens cared far more about owning a weapon than whose side they were fighting for. Kadyrov’s security apparatus became an alternative outlet for fighters after they left the Chechen underground, or for those who had missed their chance to join it in the first place. On the one hand, these fluid allegiances created new opportunities to root out the remaining underground forces. On the other, it lent the Kadyrov regime a rather distinct character.
In the meantime, Kadyrov-controlled elites replaced the colonial-style bureaucracy. They operated under a chain of command similar to criminal organizations; members subordinated themselves completely to the leader and drew benefits based on their boss’s special status, while operating completely outside the law. At this stage, Moscow certainly had its share of concerns about these developments, but the symbiotic relationship with Grozny forced it to acquiesce in most cases.
Nevertheless, tensions occasionally flared. For instance, one of Kadyrov’s close associates, Movladi Baysarov, was killed in a Moscow raid in 2006. And in 2007, Kadyrov managed to get the chief of the Second Operational Investigative Bureau replaced after Moscow refused to concede control of the bureau to him.
As Kadyrov’s power structure became well-entrenched, the Kremlin for a time did not seem too concerned. Yet while publicly highlighting his personal loyalty and pledging to serve as Putin’s “foot soldier,” Kadyrov was effectively putting himself on the same level as the Russian president and building leverage over Moscow. As a result, Putin’s vaunted power vertical began looking more and more horizontal. And over time, it became clear that Kadyrov was attempting to expand his model beyond Chechnya’s geographic borders, even though his style of rule was starting to lose its luster.
Miracle After Miracle
As for Chechnya’s economic outlook, the sustainability of the Chechen miracle was entirely contingent on Kadyrov’s ability to deliver. The initial benefits were obvious: repaired roads, the absence of checkpoints, nights free of fighting. These were followed by the construction of schools, daycare centers, parks, and stadiums. An entire generation of Chechens proudly adorned themselves in Kadyrov T-shirts. One young television reporter gushed enthusiastically about the Kadyrov of the late 2000s, saying that Chechnya had it all, including soccer and volleyball teams; he went on to say, “inshallah, there’ll be a hockey team, too.” The supply of state-sponsored miracles seemed inexhaustible to a people who had lived in a war zone for nearly a decade.
But, gradually, a desire to live like others gave way to continually rising expectations—even if, in many instances, the general public had little to gain from these top-down efforts. For instance, despite the massive reconstruction in the center of Grozny, relatively few of the new housing units were actually filled. Yet Kadyrov was relaxed about popular disenchantment during this period. Average Chechens continued smiling innocuously during Kadyrov’s speeches, in which he proposed ideas such as breeding special Chechen horses. Populist promises, real or imagined, allowed Kadyrov to maintain the image of a successful leader.
Apart from the small tokens of appreciation the Kremlin bestowed on Chechnya, the region gained most from its de facto embrace of extraterritoriality. Kadyrov’s bargaining may have boosted his popularity in the neighboring Republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan, but it also contributed to growing tensions with Moscow. In 2013, the Kremlin refused to make Chechnya the majority stakeholder of local energy firm Grozneftegaz, which dented Kadyrov’s reputation. The year prior, meanwhile, Moscow publicly ignored Chechen complaints that the republic had been getting up to 80 percent less in tax receipts because of Rosneft’s underhanded practices. In the latter case, Kadyrov insisted that his republic should not pay for electricity and ended up prevailing: in August 2015, the center forgave Chechnya 16 billion rubles (about $250 million) in arrears for the period of 1999 to 2009, according to a local government official. These kinds of incidents helped create the impetus for adjustments in the relationship.
Kadyrov tried to capitalize on various economic benefits from Moscow and avidly sought to establish relevant precedents. He expected that Chechnya’s economic and political spheres would be immune from Moscow’s interference. At the same time, he understood the importance of prolonging the region’s exclusive relationship with Moscow based on the existing rules of the road. Unfortunately for Kadyrov, doubts in Moscow about the longevity of the relationship developed much sooner than expected. These doubts grew long before he began to regularly remind Moscow about his claimed intention to resign in early 2016.
As President Putin began his third term in 2012, Kadyrov’s domestic model began to falter. Previously, Chechnya had achieved a remarkable level of development similar to that of other Russian republics with the help of generous federal subsidies. New construction sites, once a sign of postwar regrowth, were now criticized as superfluous and grandiose, symbolizing the disconnect between Kadyrov and the Chechen public. Kadyrov’s popularity declined even among the younger generation raised on his cult of personality, as fewer citizens enjoyed a healthy level of social mobility.
Meanwhile, the very fact of Kadyrov’s success generated enemies, both in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in Russia. Within Chechnya, Kadyrov resolved the problem of Chechen militancy by driving most militants beyond the republic’s borders into Dagestan and Ingushetia. This successful approach was, of course, only a temporary solution. Once outside Chechnya’s borders, these fighters joined fringe groups, such as Dagestan’s well-organized underground forces.
Kadyrov’s most dangerous enemies—the federal security services—were inherited from his father. Confrontation between the Kremlin and the Chechen leadership was inevitable for two reasons. First, the Kadyrov regime demanded total control of all security forces in Chechen territory. Second, Ramzan Kadyrov’s implicit contract with the Chechen public hinged upon respect for Chechen independence. Forced to choose between Kadyrov and federal security forces run by Kremlin loyalists, Putin sided with the former. This move sowed the seeds of conflict between Kadyrov and members of Putin’s inner circle.
Federal officials—and the business interests affiliated with them—also staked out positions opposed to Kadyrov. The deep animosity toward the Chechen leadership could be traced back to the credit boom that financed Chechnya’s reconstruction. According to a private conversation with a local government official, while many officials had hoped to reap the benefits of reconstruction, only those closest to Kadyrov were given their cut. Russia’s regional elites also objected to Kadyrov’s system of patronage. Carefully balancing federal and regional demands with what he was hearing from domestic constituencies, Kadyrov could be more and more easily portrayed as seeking greater Chechen sovereignty and home rule. This unsuccessful balancing act was increasingly visible in Kadyrov’s demands for confederate-style relations between Moscow and Grozny on numerous legal issues.
As long as Chechnya enjoyed a rapid economic resurgence, systemic tensions between the republic and central authorities in Moscow could be ignored. Yet they came to the fore as growth slowed. By spearheading postwar reconstruction and delivering on his promise to make Chechnya equivalent to any other Russian republic, Kadyrov undermined his own political raison d’être.
Islam in Chechnya
In seeking to reassert his legitimacy, Kadyrov latched onto political Islam. The move was unsurprising given his family history and Chechnya’s tradition of Sufi Islam. Political Islam could also be wielded against Chechen radicals who pledged allegiance to the nascent self-proclaimed Islamic State. “We welcome traditional Islam by all means,” Kadyrov explained in a 2012 BBC interview. “We will have no other interpretations and never will. We don’t accept interpretations that did not exist at the time of the Prophet. We will support our traditional Chechen, Caucasian, Russian Islam and build our future around it.” Kadyrov also has insisted on including sharia norms in the republic’s legal framework.
The increased politicization of Islam was a noteworthy phenomenon, especially since Chechnya accepted Islam relatively late in its history. Islam in Chechnya never held the same sociocultural stature it enjoyed, for instance, in Dagestan, a historic source of Islamic theories and structures in the North Caucasus region. Yet despite a relatively short national tradition of Islam, religion has been firmly incorporated into the Chechen political realm.
Grozny attempted to graft Islamic norms onto other local traditions. While political Islam became part of everyday life, the tight control of the official religious leadership stirred unhappiness. This public backlash has created an opening for the Islamic State in Chechnya and helps explain why a larger number of Chechens have joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The group has also gained ground among the remnants of Chechnya’s radical movement; several leaders have pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State.
Still, the degree of Chechnya’s Islamization is not as dangerous as Kadyrov’s opponents sometimes claim. A large-scale Islamist, anti-Kadyrov Chechen insurgency is unlikely because the region’s underground movement has been largely eliminated. Hostility toward the regime usually results in emigration rather than confrontation. (Most Chechens emigrate for purely economic reasons—yet another indication that the Kadyrov phenomenon has exhausted itself.)
Nevertheless, one thing the politicization of Islam has allowed Kadyrov to do is globalize his brand. As a self-appointed spokesperson for Russia’s Muslims, Kadyrov not only advocates Chechen interests but also represents Russian Islam to the outside world, especially in the Middle East. This outreach has become a key element of his political career. He has met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. He has visited Mecca twice. In November 2013, Kadyrov made a lobbying tour of Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, seeking investment for Chechnya. He has invited famous theologians to the republic and has asked the Chechen diaspora in Turkey to return home.
By putting himself at the center of Russian dealings in the Middle East, Kadyrov hopes to make himself indispensable to the Kremlin. The king of Jordan has expressed interest in Kadyrov’s ability to curtail the Chechen diaspora’s participation in Middle Eastern conflicts. Still, it’s unlikely that Putin has entrusted Kadyrov with such sensitive missions. Rather, the Chechen leader has seized the opportunity to assert himself, expand his influence, and bolster his political network—presumably with the tacit acquiescence of the Kremlin. Despite Kadyrov’s efforts, however, tangible foreign investment in Chechnya remains limited to Grozny’s skyscrapers, hotels, and entertainment complexes.
Moscow’s relationship with Grozny complicated the national system of governance in Russia and sparked conflict within Putin’s inner circle. For a time, this tension was tolerated as the cost of keeping the peace in Russian-Chechen relations. Gradually, however, it became clear that such conflicts could only be resolved by either exploring alternative models or ignoring the clashes altogether.
By 2013, Putin was no longer eager to take Ramzan Kadyrov’s phone calls. Each time the Kremlin was forced to side with Kadyrov—say, over the killings of his political opponents or the ongoing standoff with former Chechen president Alu Alkhanov—the list of grievances against Kadyrov multiplied.
As he fell out of favor with Moscow, Kadyrov failed to secure an extension of the federal target program for Chechen reconstruction. The program concluded in 2012, despite Kadyrov’s lobbying for an extension through 2017, and Chechnya lost its economic exclusivity. When discussing federal target programs, Russia’s minister for North Caucasus affairs, Lev Kuznetsov, noted difficulties in Ingushetia and Dagestan, pointedly ignoring both Chechnya and Kadyrov.
Meanwhile, Chechen elites grew increasingly nervous on the heels of the dramatic 2013 arrest of Said Amirov, the mayor and power broker of Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala. It was the most notable blow to the North Caucasus elites in recent history. While elites in Grozny still enjoyed relative protection, the rules of the game were clearly changing.
The economic and political turmoil Russia experienced in 2013 and 2014 created further urgency for establishing new terms of reference in Russian-Chechen relations. The Russian state tightened federal control over semiautonomous regions, a blow to Kadyrov’s independence. Kadyrov’s political problems deepened on February 27, 2015, with the assassination of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov. Investigators identified five Chechen suspects, one being a Kadyrov associate. The assassination reignited tensions in relations between Moscow and Grozny.
Serious pressure mounted against Kadyrov. Despite his highly theatrical public statements about his willingness to resign, few took him at his word. Rather these statements were treated as a form of blackmail. The Kremlin responded with an orchestrated campaign to apply pressure. Ultimately, Kadyrov accepted his new subservient role in relations with Moscow. Benefits of the implicit arrangement appeared quickly, as Chechnya’s electricity debts were forgiven in a gesture of political goodwill and the television channel NTV aired a documentary lauding Kadyrov’s contributions to the Russian state. All things considered, Kadyrov suffered some losses and a bruised ego, but his hold on power in Chechnya remains firm.
The Terms of the New Contract
At first glance, Ramzan Kadyrov’s style of rule appears unchanged. He has publicly threatened the prosecutor’s office in the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk over a ruling on Quran verses and has tried to cast doubt on the possible role of an associate, Ruslan Geremeyev, in the Nemtsov assassination case. Kadyrov’s belligerence is reminiscent of his clash with the Committee Against Torture, a Chechen human rights organization whose office was set ablaze in December 2014.
While Kadyrov’s tone has not changed, the intensity and scope of his recent pronouncements suggest his leadership style has. He has ingratiated himself back into the Kremlin’s good graces by accepting a downsized role. Despite an appearance of martial rule—seen, for instance, in his calls to punish “enemies of the people”—and his attempts to preserve Chechnya’s special status, Kadyrov is in fact playing a defensive game. While he still promotes his ideological exports, including his brand of radical conservatism and demonstrations of force, Moscow is much less impressed.
Since failing to penetrate Putin’s inner circle, Kadyrov’s outsized role in Russian politics has diminished. Regional leaders on the whole have largely lost their status within the broader circle of Russian elites. Though he may be first among the second tier of elites, Kadyrov no longer benefits from a direct link to Putin. Nor can Kadyrov automatically invoke the Kremlin in his clashes with the Ministry of Finance and other federal agencies. Chechnya is increasingly limited to preferential treatment from federal bodies that is directly sanctioned by the Kremlin.
Chechnya remains firmly under Kadyrov’s control, although the new model does not permit his use of force beyond Chechnya’s borders. Federal law enforcement officials are still constrained in their ability to operate in Chechnya. Even though Kadyrov enjoys considerable latitude as the republic’s leader, the balance of power has clearly shifted.
One of Kadyrov’s main accomplishments—rooting out Chechen separatism—continues to play a potent role in Russian-Chechen relations. In Chechnya, postwar amnesty has taken a rather unusual form: those who fought on opposing sides during one or both wars are now equal participants in Chechen public life. Past identities and personal grudges have been laid to rest in favor of a shared Chechen identity. Kadyrov’s success in this realm allows the political discourse to focus on issues like debt forgiveness instead of separatism.
Modern Chechnya is no longer a conflict zone. Rather, it is an ordinary republic, and Kadyrov has lost his potency as a symbol. Recognizing Kadyrov’s loss of status, Chechen elites have quieted their demands. The Kremlin’s Chechen project has come to a close. If in the future Chechnya receives federal benefits, it will not be a result of the republic’s special status, but rather due to standard informal agreements between government officials in response to Chechen underdevelopment. Despite Kadyrov’s efforts, the new contract will almost certainly close the chapter on Chechen claims to leadership in the region.
Nonetheless, Kadyrov will likely retain his status as one of Russia’s distinguished emissaries in both the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds. While Russian-Islamic initiatives are not the sole province of Kadyrov, the Jordanian king’s 2014 visit to Chechnya at Kadyrov’s personal invitation signified his stature outside of the republic. The Kremlin may continue to support Kadyrov’s liaising role based on his past success.
Kadyrov’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict is a different story. It is a reflection of his new contract with Moscow. When it comes to Chechen fighters actively participating in the Donbas—or even Kadyrov’s claims that Chechen emissaries have infiltrated the Islamic State’s organization and camps—the Kremlin seems to take the Chechen leader at his word. Kadyrov has a mostly symbolic role in some aspects of foreign policy, and he is restrained from acting alone, especially if it involves the use of force.
While Kadyrov remains the enfant terrible of Russian politics, his former privileges have been degraded or outright eliminated. Kadyrov has had little choice other than to accept a downsized role in Russian politics designed by Putin and shaped by federal and regional officials, along with members of key Chechen constituencies at home. Despite Kadyrov’s attempts to retain his special status, the old ways of doing business between Grozny and Moscow are over—and the new contract is here to stay.
Vadim Dubnov is an independent journalist and expert on the Caucasus.