Ramzan Kadyrov and the Chechen Political Landscape

The late President Akhmad Kadyrov insisted on drastic changes in arrangements that gave Russia control over what is one of the world’s most important petroleum centers. While the Chechen wars destroyed the republic’s three refineries, Chechnya had resumed oil extraction before Akhmad Kadyrov’s death. Because of its special chemical composition, Chechen oil is regarded as Russia’s best.

By Stephen R. Bowers | October 31, 2013

Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen RepublicKadyrov with President Vladimir Putin

In the 21st century, the pantheon of tyrants has reached proportions which are almost unimaginable by the standards of previous historical periods. It is not simply that there are so many in this era but, perhaps more notably, that today’s tyrants are both shameless and constantly in the public eye.

Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Idi Amin, and Nicolai Ceausescu are relics of the not so distant past, while Stalin and Hitler dominate the pages of World War Two era histories. Today’s headlines recount the brutality and venality of Assad, Putin, and Kim Jong-un.

Less noted, but no less notable, are the violent leaders in the North Caucasus, men such as Shamil Basayev, Doku Umarov, and Emir Khattab – not exactly household names. However, given his success in becoming a part of the contemporary Russian “establishment,” few can surpass the excesses of Ramzan Kadyrov, Hero of the Russian Federation and President of the Chechen Republic.

Ramzan Kadyrov’s ascendancy is the result of the arrangement his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, made with President Vladimir Putin to end his participation in the Chechen resistance to Russia and become Putin’s primary representative in the devastated republic. Not surprisingly, there was a reaction against the elder Kadyrov, who was killed in an attack by his former allies. Ramzan Kadyrov soon replaced his father and assumed a colorful presence that rivals that of Putin himself. That his violent reach extended beyond Chechnya was demonstrated in Moscow by the 2008 murder of Ruslan Yamadayev, a former Chechen MP who was his only significant rival. The next year, human rights advocate Arbi Khachukayev, who had fled to Moscow, was abducted and spirited to Grozny for interrogation. Chechen exile Umar Israilov was shot dead on a street in Vienna and other Kadyrov critics, such as the well-known Chechen activist Amr Azzam, who was killed in Egypt in August 2013, have suffered similar fates.

Ramzan Kadyrov’s qualifications for office were based not only on his relationship to Akhmad Kadyrov but on his role as head of the much-feared “Kadyrovtsy,” the seven thousand man organization which began as the personal security guard for President Akhmad Kadyrov (once the Chief Mufti of Chechnya’s Ichkerie). The core group of the “Kadyrovtsy” consists of former separatist fighters who, like Akhmad Kadyrov himself, had switched sides and joined the Russians. Recruitment techniques were intense and often included holding family members hostage until Moscow’s former enemies experienced a change of heart. Most of Ramzan Kadyrov’s brutal reputation has been built on the activities of this organization which runs private prisons, has been known to display the severed heads of its vanquished foes and, as warnings to the Chechen population, routinely posts recordings of beatings meted out to its enemies.

Kadyrov’s public persona has assumed almost global dimensions because of his use of social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, or LiveJournal to communicate with what he apparently sees as his worldwide following. Like most avid users of the new social media, he uses Instagram to post countless pictures of himself in interesting poses. It is a rare week in which the Chechen leader does not appear racing about the countryside in an expensive foreign automobile or accompanied by an appropriately exotic animal. When not accompanied by the wolf, which is Chechnya’s national symbol, Kadyrov may be joined by world leaders or even Western movie stars who might be guests of the presidential office. The guest list for Kadyrov’s lavish 2009 birthday party included Oscar winning actress Hilary Swank, British violinist Vanessa Mae and, not surprisingly given Karyrov’s film tastes, action star Jean-Claude van Damme. Swank and van Damme, who proclaimed his love for the Chechen leader, were especially effusive in their words of praise. In 2012, another frequent visitor, Gérard Depardieu, proclaimed “Glory to Grozny! Glory to Chechnya! Glory to Kadyrov!” and indicated his intention to make Chechnya his new home when he denounced his French citizenship in response to the socialist government’s new and excessive income tax.

While Putin could well be aggravated by Kadyrov’s shameless self-aggrandizement, the 2013 Syrian crisis gave the Russian government ample reason to tolerate what most people regard as excessive behavior by the Chechen president. The Syrian conflict has given Putin and Kadyrov a common interest that has enhanced latter’s value to Putin’s Russia. Kadyrov, without a doubt, has taken full advantage of his newly enhanced prominence for Russia’s Middle East objectives. Therefore, it is possible that Kadyrov has overreached in his efforts to consolidate and enhance his role in the North Caucasus. Not surprisingly, there is speculation that Kadyrov’s increasingly prominent and assertive role may have become a source of friction between Putin and his junior partner.

In the view of many Russians, both in government as well as in general society, the Russian Federation has contributed more than enough funds to maintain Chechnya and other North Caucasus “hot spots.” Given the continuing economic difficulties that Russia faces, there is less tolerance of Chechen corruption and its consumption of national resources. Consequently, Russian politicians now openly debate whether or not there should be a continuation of federal subsidies for Chechnya.

The Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation has noted numerous and consistent shortcomings in the accounting procedures of the Chechen government. Because management of federal budgetary funds is the direct responsibility of Kadyrov and his immediate circle, such criticisms might eventually undermine Kadyrov’s standing with Moscow. The Chamber’s 2013 audit revealed discrepancies and violations in excess of $250 million, violations that may yet be classified as crimes.

As the federal government has attempted to impose measures to increase accountability for Chechnya’s use of subsidies, Kadyrov has worked to avoid stringent federal restrictions. One of his most frequent tactics has been to take loans from banks and secure those loans with the promise of future federal subsidies. Since banks’ concerns are simply for the return of the money when the federal subsidies arrive, there is no direct accounting of how the money was actually used by the Chechen government.

While resisting federal efforts to restrain the corruption that seems endemic to the North Caucasus, Kadyrov has taken steps to place the republic on a more secure financial footing. The most promising endeavor has focused on Chechnya’s important natural resource base. A major Chechen goal at this time is retention of more of the profits from its oil industries, funds which now go primarily to the Russian government. While Chechnya enjoys the benefit of Russian subsidies, there is no doubt the leadership would prefer a funding stream of its own which was not subject to the vagaries of Kremlin politics and intrigue.

This is not a new demand, as the late President Akhmad Kadyrov insisted on drastic changes in arrangements that gave Russia control over what is one of the world’s most important petroleum centers. While the Chechen wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2009) destroyed the republic’s three refineries, Chechnya had resumed oil extraction before Akhmad Kadyrov’s death. Because of its special chemical composition, Chechen oil is regarded as Russia’s best. In spite of this, the republic’s budget enjoys the benefit of no more than 10% of the Chechen oil profit. As of 2013, the Chechen government had made no significant progress in satisfying this long-standing demand.

A long-standing Chechen border dispute with Ingushetia over the status of the Sunzha Raion was exacerbated in 2013 when the Chechen parliament unilaterally changed the law regarding the boundaries of this district, thus claiming lands placed under Ingush control with Russian approval in 2003. Ingush authorities responded to the Chechen move by hinting at future measures to protect their sovereignty. In the absence of a prompt Russian response to the Chechen move, most observers assumed that Russian support for Kadyrov was unqualified.

Those assumptions quickly altered following an apparent Chechen deception operation designed to spread a belief that Russian leaders are unhappy with Ingush leader Yevkurov because of his failure to curb the Islamic insurgency. Kadyrov has long accused Yevkurov of being too lenient with Islamic radicals. Putin and the senior Russian leadership immediately took actions to indicate unwavering support for Yevkurov’s administration. While the rebuke was muted, it was nonetheless a clear indication of Russian unhappiness with Kadyrov.

Putin’s criticisms, to date, have not matched those of others in Russian official circles. Some FSB officials complain bitterly about the extent to which the “Kadyrovtsy” can flaunt Russian law and operate on the Moscow streets as if they were an independent force beyond the reach of federal authorities. The Russian Army is openly critical of Kadyrov because of what it sees as unfair treatment of two Russian officers who were convicted, unjustly they say, by a biased Chechen court which simply wanted to please Kadyrov. Until Putin takes direct action to restrain the Chechen president, it is unlikely that Kadyrov will cease behaving in the fashion of tyrants of old. In a 2013 interview with Russian reporter Anna Nemtsova, Kadyrov boasted that “As long as Putin backs me up, I can do everything – God is Great!”

Stephen R. Bowers, Ph.D. is a professor of government in the Helms School of Government at Liberty University. Professor Bowers is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.