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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Chechnya and Russia: The Powder Keg

This is a research paper I wrote for my Government and Politics of Russia course regarding the possibility of Chechnya again attempting to secede from Russia. Enjoy!

    In the minefield that is the North Caucasus, Chechnya once stood out on the international stage as a particularly nasty hellhole. Chechens fought two brutal wars with Russia in the 1990s, with both sides committing horrid atrocities.
    Today, the streets of the Chechen capital Grozny are quiet and colorfully lit up, while glitzy skyscrapers gaze down upon them. The city is eerily peaceful-it does not look like a place where war raged only fifteen years ago. Some things, however, have not changed, and that leads to the question-will Chechnya attempt independence again?
    No, at least not now it won’t. Chechnya as it sits today is more stable than it’s been for most of the 1990s and 2000s. After the two wars in Chechnya, the Kremlin decided to pour millions of roubles into an extensive rebuilding project, centered in Grozny. “Today, the Chechen capital echoes to the sound, not of bullets, but of popcorn machines on street corners and construction work.”1 It is a positive development, but how long will it last? Could a perfect storm of political instability, resurgent nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and economic hardship bring it all crashing down? This is why the peace that exists today feels suspicious, as if it is a hurricane’s eye, with the next part of the storm creeping towards the region to wreak havoc once again.
    In order to understand why there may be storm clouds on the horizon, we need to meet Chechnya’s president. Today’s Chechen Republic is led by a man named Razman Kadyrov, who rose to power in Chechnya after his father Akhmad was killed by a bomb in 2004.2  President Vladimir Putin installed him as Prime Minister, then President, where he remains today. In April of 2009, Russia declared that her counterterrorist operation in Chechnya was over. Kadyrov was enthusiastic, exclaiming "We have eradicated the threat of international terrorism and extremism, and defended the integrity of Russia." As Russian troops rolled out of Chechnya, children watching pumped their fists and shouted Islam’s takbir, “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Greatest!). 3 These images certainly imply that progress has been made, but whether the Putin-Kadyrov relationship will persevere is another story. Kadyrov is a controversial figure, and like Putin, is not very well-liked by international human rights groups.   Tatyana Lokshina, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, claims that"The legacy [of the counterterrorist operation] is one of absolute impunity for blatant human rights abuses, such as disappearances, murder and torture." 4 Rumors also exist that claim men loyal to Kadyrov are causing problems in Chechnya’s eastern neighbor of Dagestan. Kadyrov seems to be an authoritarian at best and a dictator at worst. His loyalty to President Putin ensures he calls most of the shots in Chechnya, and solidifies his grip on power in the region.  The problem is, we don’t know how long Kadyrov will stay on good terms with Putin or the Chechen people. Chechnya has quieted down, but the region is still dangerous, and if the stabilization of the region is to continue, Kadyrov must be careful. If he is assassinated, the region could very well fall into angry disarray and anarchy. If he loses favor with President Putin, tensions in the region will rise, especially if he stays popular with the Chechen people. If he loses the approval of the Chechen people, they may negatively link him to the Kremlin and take up arms against the status quo.
    Chechnya’s relative peace is largely due to the rebuilding of infrastructure that Putin and Kadyrov have initiated. Groznyy, Chechnya’s capital, was blown to hell in the first Chechen War, then blown even further to hell in the Second Chechen War. Today, it’s a modern, even somewhat glitzy city that has been recognized by the UN for its positive transformation.5 But how long will this lull last? Is the current business model sustainable? Like much of Russia, Chechnya is host to quite a bit of corruption.6  Kadyrov’s status as an authoritarian is a detriment to this-if recession hits Chechnya, it’s unclear whether he will be able to effectively guide his republic back to economic stability. Furthermore, could he be blamed for potential economic turmoil? Another question exists-is Russia willing to help if depression strikes, or will they leave Chechnya alone to fend for themselves? Zubarevich is pessimistic either way. If they ignore a possible economic crisis, there’s a real posibility of Russian-Chechen animosity resurfacing and blame landing on the Kremlin. According to Zubarevich, the situation maybe even grimmer than that.
    In the short term, Chechnya would likely be able to fend off a widespread uprising as long as the Kremlin is supportive. But if Putin’s government is uncooperative, or it becomes preoccupied with internal problems of its own, desires for independence and secession could be stirred.
    Despite improvements, Chechnya still sits in a dangerous and severely flawed region. Natalia Zubarevich calls it the “Fourth Russia”-she admits one of the possibilities for this and other regions is “possible disentigration.”7 It is, culturally, much different than Russia in these regions: “There is almost no work in the cities...the migrants require help from their clan in obtaining employment...corruption is rampant there.” This is not good for Chechnya, nor is it good for the multiple other regions. To Chechnya’s west lies Ingushetia, one of Russia’s poorest provinces. Ingushetia’s economy was badly damaged by the Chechen wars, and unlike Chechnya, Ingushetia received substantially less economic aid. 8 A common complaint in that region is that “There is no law or justice. In a society in which blood vendettas are part of a man's honour, young male relatives of the deceased have to seek their own justice.They head into the hills to get a gun and take revenge. And while with the extremists, their ideology may shift accordingly.” 9 Dagestan, to the east, is teetering towards anarchy and Islamic fundamentalism is largely to blame. “Today it is the republic of Dagestan on the Caspian Sea that is the most explosive place in Russia-and in Europe. There are bomb attacks almost daily, shootouts between police and militants, tales of torture and of people going missing.”10 If anti-Russian violence increases in Dagestan, Ingushetia, or another of the Caucasus regions such as North Ossetia, Chechens may see an opportunity to declare independence. 
    Russia has come under fire recently for its discriminatory laws against homosexuals, but racism is also widespread among the Russian people, and the inhabitants of the Caucasus are often the target for this prejudice. The Russian media propagates this hatred: “In recent years, the media introduced a new term, ‘individual of Caucasian nationality.’ Since then, “individuals of Caucasian nationality” have become scapegoats for economic hardship...A recent survey revealed that between 30 and 34 % of ethnic Russians are “distrustful” of Azerbaijanis, Armenians, and Chechens [all Caucasians]...59 % say that immigration to Russia should be strictly limited. 46% are confident that immigrants live better than Russians and have more power. Half of the respondents say that the number of Caucasians in Russia should be limited.” 11When an illegal immigrant from Azerbaijan, another Caucasus nation, killed an ethnic Russian named Yegor Shcherbakov, riots broke out, and refrains of “Russia for the Russians!” and “White Power!” echoed through the cold night streets of Moscow.12 The hatred is not so one-sided, and for now remains an unfortunate reality. As mentioned before, if economic or political problems arise in the region, the animosity between ethic Russians and Caucasians will flare up and could cause a deterioration of trust. It could lead to the sentiment that Chechens must take matters into their own hands.
    Another potential problem is the rise of an Islamist Chechnya. Kadyrov is enacting laws in Chechnya, and the region is looking more and more like an Islamic Republic.13 This has the potential to be very divisive, as Russia has had to deal with Islamic fundamentalists in the region. If Kadyrov goes too far, he may provoke tensions with the Kremlin.
    Before the surge of Islamic fundamentalism, Chechen rebels were primarily nationalistic in tone. The nationalistic movement has faded in recent years, but it is not gone. Chechnya is a fairly homogeneous republic, united in ethnicity, religion, and culture. It is a turbulent time in the former USSR. Ukraine, the breadbasket of the region, has been engulfed in protests demanding that the Russian-supported president Viktor Yanukovich step down from his post and let Ukraine establish closer ties with the European Union. This is not directly related to Chechnya, but there are parallels that could surface. Svoboda, a Ukrainian nationalist party, has been seen participating in the “EuroMaidan” rallies. If Ukraine succeeds in its goals of a stronger democracy and greater economic independence from Russia, it could inadvertently set off a region-wide uprising against Russian influence. The people of Belarus, often called “the last dictatorship in Europe” and host to a Russian-supported government, could see protests, and this in turn could encourage the Chechens to take their destiny into their own hands. In turn, Russian nationalism, often coupled with the aforementioned racism, may rouse animosity towards the Putin government.
    Instability is the root of all the possible scenarios for Chechen secession. If Putin’s government, Kadyrov’s government, and the Caucasus region stabilize, the chances of Chechen secession will dwindle. But pessimism is prevalent, and Zubarevich in particular believes that that stability may not be coming. 14

Works Cited

Lipman, Maria and Nikolay Petrov, Russia 2025: Scenarios for the Russian Future. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (November 14, 2013), 80-82.

Rosenberg, Steve. “Kadyrov's Chechnya rises from the ashes, but at what cost?,” last modified September 17, 2012.,

Marson, James. “Russia's Chechnya Pullout: Compromise Over Victory” Last modified April 20, 2009.,8599,1892517,00.html

Oberlander, Peter. “The 2009 Scroll of Honour Award Winners”.

Rotheroe, Dom. “Ingushetia’s Cycle of Violence”. Last modified October 3rd, 2009.

Ash, Lucy. “Dagestan: The most dangerous place in Europe”. Last modified November 23, 2011.

Svirina, Ekaterina. “Xenophobia and Racism in Russia: How the Russian Media portrays “OutGroups” May 13, 2007. p. 6-11.

Levada Analytical Center, Most Russians Do Not Welcome Immigrants,

Staff Article. “Moscow riots after ‘murder by migrant’” Last modified October 14, 2013.

Marten, Kimberly. “Russia, Chechnya, and the Sovereign Kadyrov: PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No.116” Columbia University, 2010.

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