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Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
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Recent Analysis and Translations:
Russian independent media has devoted a lot of time to speculating whether Ramzan Kadyrov, the notorious strongman of Chechnya, will be forced to step down by the Kremlin when his term expires — or whether he will remain.
Kadyrov has been engaged in a strenuous PR campaign for over a month, achieving most attention by bashing or threatening various high-profile opposition figures, punctuated by photos of himself with President Vladimir Putin and other high officials. Ill-wishers say he is forced to go so public because he can’t get a phone call through to the Kremlin, and this is just a bid for attention to make the Kremlin see how much he is needed.
Others say it is merely part of the overall Kremlin plan to keep people off balance, even their satraps like Kadyrov — so far presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has had “no comment” about Kadyrov’s future, although officials have leaked speculation to the media that Kadyrov will remain.
Our sense is that Kadyrov will be kept in place for the simple reason that he hooks up to a chain of Kremlin officials still in place, not only Putin himself but Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s former bodyguard and commander of the Interior Troops who has been Kadyrov’s connection to Putin. He last visited him in August 2015 ostensibly to “inspect the troops” and shows no sign of displeasure with his client. Vyacheslav Volodin, first deputy chief of staff in the presidential administration is Kadyrov’s other main contact whom he always visits and photographs himself with when he goes to Moscow.
Interestingly, Kadyrov doesn’t seem to directly deal much with that other infamous Chechen of Russia — Vladislav Surkov — although they have been shown vacationing together in the past. Kadyrov’s association with the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov through the Interior Ministry troops’ commander, Ruslan Geremeyev, and deputy commander, the alleged trigger man Zaud Dadaye, as well as their mutual relative, Sen. Adam Delimkhanov, has not been enough justification for removing him in the last year and would not likely become so merely due to the end of his term. When the Kremlin wants to get rid of governors they don’t like, they move swiftly.
Embarrassment over things like a trail of murder and corruption is not an emotion that Kremlin denizens feel, and even if for some cosmetic reason they wanted to sideline Kadyrov to make it seem like they were “doing something” about things like Nemtsov’s murder, Kadyrov would still remain near power. The only people who could assume power are his close associates who not only know where the bodies are buried but how to keep the various clans and interest groups functioning in subordination to Moscow.
Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a long-time expert on ethnic conflict in the North Caucasus and former teacher at the Chechen State University, is currently the North Caucasus program director for the International Crisis Group and a board member of Memorial Human Rights Center. Her perspective on Kadyrov’s reign has been grounded in investigating all the “excesses” of his regime — kidnappings, torture, disappearances, killings, and reprisals against relatives of suspected terrorists. As a frequent traveler to the region she has also followed the politics of Chechnya closely and has an informed take on Kadyrov’s prospects.
In an interview with Caucasian Knot today March 4, the regional news site, she said Kadyrov is “irreplaceable in the model of relations with Chechnya that the Kremlin has built for the last 13 years” — and which they show no sign of changing.
“He is Putin’s personal project and a successful project, capable of carrying out important assignments for the Kremlin,” she said.
Most importantly, he’s a known quantity that the Kremlin can control; “under the conditions of economic crisis and the coming electoral crisis,” Putin will not want to lose control over Chechnya and will keep Ramzan in place.
That doesn’t mean that a replacement couldn’t be found and a job found to keep Kadyrov happy, she says; he could be put in Syria, for example, and “transmit the experience of post-war reconstruction to Bashar al-Assad,” she said.
In an important sense, the Kremlin doesn’t have control over Chechen itself, even with its lines to Kadyrov; basically the republic has been “farmed out to a certain group of people in exchange for a specific set of services,” she says.
Do those services include contract murders? Sokiryanskaya believes “Putin was very angry when Nemtsov was murdered but understands that the purpose was not to harm him personally.” He let the Chechen killers know who had been bold enough to slay an opponent at the walls of the Kremlin that he was unhappy, but “there were no serious consequences.”
That may mean the Kremlin has enough control over Chechnya for its satisfaction — and doesn’t care or can’t care about the rest. Says Sokiryanskaya (translation by The Interpreter):
“I don’t believe that Ramzan attacked the opposition on orders from the Kremlin or by Kremlin procurements. This is his own initiative and is spontaneous, which, nevertheless can be to the advantage of Russia’s leadership. Kadyrov articulates what not a single federal bureaucrat can allow himself to say aloud; thus the concept of law is removed throughout society.”
Regarding a recent report on Kadyrov released by opposition activist Ilya Yashin, co-chair of the Parnas party, Sokiryanskaya said she thought it was “effective as a political instrument — brief, informative and with vivid photographs.”
While she disagreed with the main conclusions of the report, she felt it was marred by some mistakes, for example, the claim that 21,000 ethnic Russian residents of Chechnya were killed before the first Chechen war in 1995. “This does not correspond to reality,” she said, and we would agree. While it’s true there were massive violations of human rights of Russians in Chechnya, they did not reach this scale before the war, she said.
We could note that it’s also important to point out that if the Kremlin believed they were saving Russians when bombing Grozny, they were so indiscriminate that they ended up killing many more than they claimed were affected by Chechen nationalist rule.
Sokiryanskaya said she didn’t agree with Yashin’s questions addressed to Ramzan although she conceded that federal law-enforcers didn’t “hide their irritation” with him. They will never forget that he fought them in two wars, and then “displaced them as a victor” when he switched to the Kremlin’s side — and now “lives in luxury.”
Even so, the presence of centrally controlled troops in Russia — besides the Interior Ministry troops in Kadyrov’s “personal army” — “guarantee his support of the Putin regime in the event of a popular uprising.”
“Power in the republic is maintained on the bayonets not of Kadyrov’s troops, but federal troops,” she said. If they were withdrawn for some reason, Kadyrov’s own power “wouldn’t last for a week,” as a “significant number of his troops would escape his authority.”
The parade of 10,000 or 12,000 troops in the stadium when Kadyrov staged a show of force in December 2014, noted with concern by Nemtsov himself, is likely the extent of his loyal troops, says Sokiryanskaya, although there are more law-enforcers in Chechnya. “Chechen law-enforcers should not be seen as a monolith,” she added.
“Only a backbone of them are loyal are really loyal to Ramzan, but the rest of the guys came to the Interior Ministry because there’s no other jobs. Perhaps they like serving in the agencies, but they would prefer having a less extravagant management. I had a student at Chechen State University who was an OMON soldier [in the riot troops]. He didn’t come to class and came to pick up a quiz. I asked him a question about the Geneva Conventions. Of course, he didn’t know the answer, so I sent him out into the hall to read the lecture notes. The young man came back with his eyes bugging out and began to tell me how these conventions were violated, how they force captured fighters to switch to the other side and subject them to torture.”
The economic crisis and devaluation of the ruble has meant that Kadyrov’s subsidies are worth less and he has been trying to extract more from the citizens in his republic, especially small businesses. All of his big construction plans — for which his personal fund was used — will soon be completed so he won’t have an excuse to keep raising more, she says.
Sokiryanskaya doesn’t believe Kadyrov has mass support, as workers are turned out for mass demonstrations and school-children are coerced into holding up posters asking him not to leave and the fact that the posters can later be found lying on the ground testifies to people’s indifference.
“The spring has been tightened to the limit. It will break at the first opportunity, when the status-quo changes in Moscow,” she says.
That’s why it’s important to try to prevent bloodshed now. Kadyrov’s regime doesn’t rely on fear and oppression alone; there are some categories of people in Chechnya who support him, including government workers and conservatives. People have grown accused to the idea that 10% of their salaries go toward “voluntary contributions” to Kadyrov’s philanthropic fund. In fact, says Sokiryanskaya, greater amounts are extracted from those with more income.
In the immediate years after the two wars, the idea was instilled into people’s minds that Kadyrov led them out of the ashes. But as the years go by and people are still in poverty, and a new generation appears that doesn’t remember the wars, Kadyrov will be less popular. Is there anyone who could be more popular and replace him, however?
Regarding Kadyrov’s close associates who might be tapped to succeed him, she says:
“Magomed Daudov, speaker of the Chechen parliament, is an independent and ambitious individual. He would like to display a more independent position and has repeatedly tried. State Duma Deputy Adam Delimkhanov, a close relative of Ramzan’s has repeatedly figured in criminal cases. He was declared wanted internationally for the murder of Sulim Yamadayev. He is close to Ramzan and undoubtedly loyal. But there is no question of him as the successor, this is a play for the public. Ramzan is not even 40, and he doesn’t intend to go anywhere.”
Could the Kremlin have in mind a bigger position for Kadyrov? Sokiryanskaya discounts this as “he cannot become a politician of federal significance since he has too specific competencies which are impossible to use at the federal level.”
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Said Aligadzhiev, a Dagestani man accused of joining ISIS, has been sentenced today by the North Caucasus Region Military Court to 4 years of imprisonment, Interfax reports.
The Krasnodar Territory prosecutor’s office handled the case.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
On social media, relatives have repeatedly mentioned the name of a certain Babchenko who was the lead engineer responsible for safety at another Vorkuta mine where 19 died in an explosion in 2013, and who was then transferred to Severnaya where the same thing happened. But MediaLeaks said they were unable to find his first name or anything about him or his current location.
The following headlines were taken from RBC, 7:40 na Perrone, Currenttime.TV, Gazeta.ru, Lenta.ru, and Secretmag.ru.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick