On February 17th, 2016, three policy experts discussed the situation in Chechnya and the implications of the situation for Russian domestic politics.
After the two wars in Chechnya, the Putin Administration made it a priority to rebuild the region, pouring billions of roubles into the tiny mountainous province and turning Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, from a hellscape to a glittering city reminiscent of Las Vegas or Dubai (though likely with considerably less alcohol).
In doing so, the son of a Chechen warlord killed by Russian forces named Ramzan Kadyrov was installed as the head of Chechnya, a region he currently rules as an absolute monarch in all but name. Kadyrov is famous for being bellicose, charismatic, extremely fond of the spotlight, and iron-fisted.
“Putin is a soft version of Kadyrov, and Kadyrov is a hard version of Putin”, Aleksandra Garmazhapova, a journalist from Novaya Gazeta quipped. “When asked who would they rather meet in a dark alley, people responded with President Putin-Kadyrov is a “monkey with a grenade”, but Putin plays by certain rules.”
There’s a striking similarity between the imagery the two leaders prefer to promote of themselves. Both Putin and Kadyrov try to paint themselves as manly men but with just enough “human” features. To do this, Kadyrov prefers to use his instagram account, which hosts various images of him ranging from holding baby birds to showing him deep in prayer. Putin does much the same, though his pictures are more widely shared and broadcasted due to his higher position. Some of his most famous pictures include him cuddling with a puppy, working out, practicing his beloved judo, and enjoying tea with Prime Minister Medvedev.
The charisma and manliness is much the same, and so are the problems with both men and their administrations. Freedom of the press, already considerably hampered in Russia, is even more restricted in Chechnya. Both Russian and international journalists are afraid to report on what exactly goes on in Chechnya under Kadyrov. A journalist from Kommersant magazine was personally called out by Kadyrov who challenged him to write about his region. Crimes that do occur are often left unsolved in both Moscow and Grozny out of fear.
Another problem, Ms. Garmazhapova said, is that opposition figures in Russia are embarrassed to admit it, but they are fearful of Kadyrov. The negative response that comes from law enforcement when opposition figures are harassed and intimidated implies that the Kremlin endorses Kadyrov’s bellicose attitude.
Anton Ryzhov, who worked in Chechnya defending human rights and condemning the practice of torture, elaborated.
Torture was used many times to extract confessions regarding terrorism in Chechnya, though now that the region is a bit more stable the practice has waned in frequency.
Federal agencies in Russia are hampered by Kadyrov, Mr. Ryzhov said. “If a person loyal to Kadyrov is called in for investigation, they never show up.”
Kadyrov thrives off of tribute and while Chechnya suffers from a poor economy and a lack of jobs, the administration gets rich. This structure also has another implication that the grisly murder of Boris Nemtsov may not be solved as it nears its first anniversary.
Though not the problem it used to be, Islamic fundamentalism is still a problem that must be addressed in the North Caucasus, as Denis Sokolov stressed.
Islamic teaching in Chechnya, particularly the more fundamentalist variety, often comes from “internet sheikhs” promoting the “Caucasus Emirate” rather than the traditional ustaaz (teacher) in Dagestan as well as Chechnya. Islamic fundamentalism is still a method in which Chechens and Dagestanis can command power at a more local level, and because of where the teaching comes from, a surprisingly small amount of Sharia law is actually practiced and known by those who do.
The paranoid anti-Americanism of recent years has only further exacerbated the situation in Chechnya and the Caucasus. Relationships that were strong between the judiciary and Chechen courts now are tense because of widespread propaganda of “fifth column” actors from the United States. Corruption has worsened as well and institutions are hurting because of it.
Chechnya is much better off than it was in years directly following the brutal wars fought between Russian and Chechen forces. The current situation, however, is not at all maintainable, nor is it beneficial to the Chechen people. If the Kremlin does not start to seriously re-think what it did to stabilize Chechnya in the first place by installing a warlord’s son, the simmering region may boil over again in the future.