Is Chechnya still Russia? (ENG explainer)

During the COVID-19 epidemic, the Chechen authorities imposed a curfew, stopped public transport, and barred entry into the region. Even access to federal highways was restricted, much to the outrage of Russian premier Mikhail Mishustin. This isn’t the first time that Ramzan Kadyrov has run counter to Moscow. Western and Russian researchers have long described his republic as being ‘internal abroad’. Why do they no longer consider Chechnya part of Russia?

Ramzan Kadyrov’s relationship with Vladimir Putin is often described as a deal. Kadyrov promised to bring peace to Chechnya, in exchange for unlimited power and a free rein. Let’s recall how Ramzan Kadyrov rose to power.

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From rebel to Putin’s foot soldier

Ramzan Kadyrov is a son of Akhmad Kadyrov, the former Chief Mufti of Chechnya. During the First Chechen War, both Kadyrovs fought the Russian federal troops. But in the Second War, his father, who was against the spread of radical Islam, decided not to oppose Moscow.

To avoid getting embroiled in guerrilla warfare, the Kremlin entrusted the fight against the rebels to loyal Chechens, in June 2000. Vladimir Putin appointed Kadyrov, Sr as head of the Chechen administration, with Ramzan in charge of his father’s security services. But on May 9, 2004, Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated.

According to the Constitution, Kadyrov, Jr was ineligible to succeed his father at the time, as he was too young. Therefore, the Kremlin appointed Alu Alkhanov president, with Ramzan as deputy prime minister. But Alkhanov stepped down as soon as Kadyrov turned 30 in 2007. As per Putin’s suggestion, the Chechen parliament approved Ramzan Kadyrov for the presidency.

“It was a privileged subject of the Federation. He was young, tough, and respected in the Kremlin. At the time, there was no hint of protest,” Aleksey Malashenko, a representative of the Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute, says.

Kadyrov suppressed the armed resistance, recruiting the ones who surrendered and dealing with those who refused. In 2010, 250 people were killed and injured in terrorist attacks or skirmishes in Chechnya, but in 2018 – only 35.

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Chechen security officers loyal to the Kremlin but not to Kadyrov also died. In 2006, Chechen police shot Gorets unit commander Movladi Baisarov in Moscow. In 2008, State Duma deputy Ruslan Yamadayev was also killed there. In 2009, Sulim Yamadayev, commander of the Vostok battalion, was shot dead in Dubai.

Kadyrov has no intention of sharing power with anyone in Chechnya.

“I ordered that the word ‘opposition’ be forgotten… Now we have no opposition. It’s a system designed to subvert authority,” he stated.

Kadyrov has repeatedly promised to crack down on the Russian president’s enemies, and has sworn allegiance to him.

“I’m a servant of the people, a slave of the Almighty, a foot soldier of Putin,” the head of Chechnya stressed.

But his loyalty to Vladimir Putin doesn’t necessarily mean a commitment to Russian law.

Kadyrov’s army

Russian and international human rights activists say that the only Russian laws in force in Chechnya were approved by Ramzan Kadyrov.

Analysts say that Kadyrov, not Moscow, commands the Russian Guards and Internal Affairs forces stationed in Chechnya. The core of them are Ramzan’s fellow countrymen and former rebels. Five years ago, Kadyrov even ordered his police to shoot security forces from other regions if they entered Chechnya without warning. ‘Kadyrov’s Army’ is estimated to number 30,000 troops. But in Chechnya, there are just 15,000 defence-ministry and FSB forces subordinate to Moscow.

Russia’s only private spetsnaz university was established in Gudermes. Kadyrovites also took part in the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, and its Syrian operations. Recently, its commandos were even spotted on Norway’s Spitsbergen Island.

Human rights defenders accuse Chechen security forces of torturing and killing Kadyrov’s opponents, including the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, human rights activist Natalia Estеmirova, and politician Boris Nemtsov. In 2017, the world learned that dozens of gay men had been murdered in Grozny.

Law versus culture

Kadyrov’s cultural policy has managed to coalesce the ideas of seemingly conflicting groups: traditionalists, Islamists, pro-independentists, and supporters of Russia.

Polygamy is an illegal tradition that the Chechen authorities turn a blind eye to. Registry offices simply don’t register second or third wives. Forced marriages and honour killings are not uncommon.

Chechnya persecutes supporters of radical Islam that rejects local Islamic traditions. But Kadyrov has also introduced strict standards borrowed from the Arabian Peninsula.

The Chechen authorities made the hijab compulsory for female civil servants, students and schoolgirls. Religious programming makes up a third of Chechen state TV airtime. Gambling is banned in Chechnya. Alcohol can only be bought at one restaurant and one hypermarket. The songs musicians perform and the way they look are vetted by a state commission.

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After 2011, the Chechen authorities stopped commemorating the tragedy of February 23, 1944, when all Chechens and Ingush were deported to Kazakhstan by order of Stalin. Ramzan shifted the Day of Mourning for his father to May 10. Everyone knows that Akhmad Kadyrov died on May 9, but both Russia and Chechnya celebrate the end of World War Two on that date.

Loyalty to the Russian president hasn’t prevented Ramzan Kadyrov from backing the Chechen language. It has become the language of power, affirms Ichkeria’s ex-defence minister, who defected to Kadyrov. Magomed Khambiyev, Chechen MP:

“Our president is a Chechen, our interior minister is a Chechen, all the ministers are Chechens, and I speak to them in Chechen. I don’t think about Putin. I think about Kadyrov… I’m not interested in what’s happening in Russia”.

Shadow budget

12 billion dollars, or 1,000 dollars per capita in Chechnya. That’s how much the republic received from the federal budget from 2001 to 2012, when the post-war reconstruction programme ended. From a field of rubble, Grozny turned into a showcase for the North Caucasus. But Chechnya remains among the five most-subsidised regions of Russia. Last year it received handouts from the centre amounting to over a billion dollars, or 85% of the republic’s budget.

In addition to the federal budget, Chechen leaders receive funds from the Akhmad Kadyrov Foundation. According to Kommersant Daily, every Chechen state employee gives 10% of their salary to this foundation set up by Ramzan. The coffers are filled with compulsory donations from entrepreneurs, plus income from companies owned by the foundation. Kadyrov denies levying these fees, but this can’t be proven, as the foundation’s financial reports are not made public.

Independent foreign policy

Russian regional heads meet with colleagues or businessmen abroad. Ramzan Kadyrov is received by heads of states which are not on friendly terms with Moscow. Kadyrov has become the Kremlin’s mediator in the conservative Islamic world, but he wanted more.

“He was vying to be a Muslim leader in Russia… He was more popular than many of our muftis, but it was impossible to be that kind of leader and, as far as I know, he abandoned the idea,” Aleksey Malashenko said.

Ramzan Kadyrov’s foreign policy doesn’t always coincide with the Kremlin’s. On January 11, 2015, after the terrorist attack at the office of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov took part in the 1.5-million-strong Unity March in Paris, along with other European leaders. But on January 19, Kadyrov gathered 800,000 people at a rally in Grozny, where the Chechen leader condemned the French satirists for insulting Islam.

There was a similar situation in September 2017, when Ramzan Kadyrov staged a rally calling on Russia to protect Rohingya Muslims from being slaughtered by the Myanmar regime.

Kadyrov is also independent in his relations with neighbouring regions. In 2018, he successfully insisted on redrawing the Chechen-Ingush border, resulting in a 26,000-hectare increase in Chechen territory. A year later, the installation of signs in Chechen on the administrative border led to protests in neighbouring Dagestan.

What’s the result?

Personal agreements with the Russian president allow Ramzan Kadyrov to comply only with the laws he deems necessary. Chechnya has become a region with a unique status. Its authorities have their own armed forces; it promotes cultural and religious standards that are at odds with Russian law; its finances are not centrally controlled; and it pursues a quasi-independent foreign policy.

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Many experts believe Kadyrov will be unable to remain in power without Vladimir Putin. But others think that Ramzan Kadyrov will stay in Grozny, regardless of who’s running the Kremlin.

The explainer was part of Belsat TV news show That Way (Vot Tak) on 20 May, 2020

Alyaksandr Papko/MS,