Every year since 2009 the Council of Foreign Relations (the renowned American think tank behind the foreign policy magazine Foreign Affairs) has conducted a large survey of its fellows and leading foreign policy analysts in which participants are asked to predict what conflicts are most likely to flare up in the coming year.
The latest of these surveys, the 2016 edition, picked out a region of the world that had never before been featured: Chechnya.
Alongside this curious datum, we have another poll – this one conducted by Russia’s esteemed Levada sociological research centre – showing that between November of 2014 and November of 2015, the majority opinion of Russian citizens shifted from describing the situation in Chechnya as either ‘good’ or ‘difficult to say’ to describing it as either ‘tense’ or ‘critical’.
If Chechnya were a mine-shaft, then Russians and policy analysts would be the canaries. So what are we to make of the growing agitation of both these communities?
The easiest way to understand what’s behind this recent wave of concern is to look at the contract that exists at the heart of the modern Chechen state – the bargain between Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and Chechnya’s dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov. Roughly speaking, that contract is as follows:
When people consider what Obama has achieved over his two terms as president, and what his legacy will be, they tend to point to the same small handful of successes: the passing of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the nuclear deal with Iran, the elimination of Osama Bin Laden, and the thawing of relations with Cuba. What distinguishes these accomplishments – what elevates them above, for example, the toppling of Gaddafi or the drawdown in Afghanistan – is that they are clear-cut (they are instances where the president did pretty much exactly what he set out to do), and also symbolically powerful.
If you were to ask the same question of Putin, you’d get a similarly small pool of decisive, tangible achievements: the bringing to heel of Russia’s post-soviet oligarchs, the taming of Chechnya, and – more recently – the reconquest of Crimea and Donbass. Of these, the first two are arguably the larger feathers in Putin’s cap. They are the two issues he ran on when he was first elected in 1999, and have since become the symbolic foundations of his strongman image. The Chechen campaign, in particular, has become a sort of poster boy for his revanchist foreign policy – Russia’s Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, has referred to it fondly as “one of Russia’s business cards”; and Putin reportedly advised Merkel (in their talks on Ukraine last year) to use it as a template for resolving that conflict.
The point of all this is that Putin needs Chechnya to remain his success story. If the region slips back into chaos, he simultaneously loses face (the coin of the realm in a power vertical like Russia’s), a chunk of his legacy, and one of the strongest arguments in favour of his approach to global politics.
Remaining Putin’s “success story” requires two things:
- That Chechnya bears at least a passing resemblance to a functional state.
For the region’s dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, this means overseeing numerous reconstruction and infrastructure projects (much of Chechnya were levelled in the Second Chechen War – particularly the capital, Grozny, which the United Nations dubbed the most destroyed city on earth in 2003) as well as paying lip service to democracy and rule of law (Kadyrov declared himself “a billion percent” more democratic than any western leader in a radio interview earlier this year, though the region’s elections have been universally condemned by civil rights groups (Chechnya ranks 136th on Transparency International’s corruption index, and was described in recent opposition report as a “personal fiefdom … outside the reach of Russian law”)). More than either of these, however, it means expunging the armed resistance based in the Caucasus mountains along the republic’s southern border.
In February 2007, when Ramzan took over leadership of the region, bombings, assassinations and ambushes by the resistance were regular occurrences both in and outside the capital. One of the first proclamations he made as leader was that he would put an end to all remaining guerrilla activity by May of that year. This turned out to be overly optimistic (it wasn’t until 2009 that Russia deemed the situation stable enough to withdraw its 10 remaining battalions from the region, and in fact the resistance continues to operate even now), however Ramzan’s brutal counter-terrorism campaign did eventually achieve a decisive reduction in the number attacks. The year he came to power, 154 police and soldiers were killed by resistance fighters. By 2013, that figure was down to 38.
A 2015 report by the International Crisis Group concluded that this reduction was achieved “to a great extent” by the application of collective punishment – by torturing, exiling or destroying the homes of the relatives of suspected insurgents – and indeed, in an interview with Vajnakh TV in 2010, Ramzan even went so far as to defend the policy (which he had until then denied was being implemented), arguing that “If you give birth to a child, you have to be held accountable. Father will be held accountable for his son; mother for her daughter”.
- That Chechnya be seen, both by the Russian public and by the higher ups in the Kremlin, to be a loyal and obedient subject.
What this involves, for Kadyrov, is putting on two performances: one in word (aimed at the average Muscovite) and the other in deed (aimed at Putin’s inner circle).
The first of these performances features, at centre stage, Ramzan’s notoriously over-the-top public displays of devotion, such as the stadium address he gave last year to 20,000 troops from his private army, in which he described himself as Putin’s humble “foot soldier” and proceeded to lead a chant of “long live Russia’s national leader, Vladimir Putin”. Also featured are Ramzan’s vociferous endorsements of essentially all of Putin’s foreign policy decisions (he was a vocal advocate for Russian intervention in both Georgia and Ukraine, and last October publically implored Putin to let Chechen battalions join the war effort in Syria), as well as his vituperative attacks on any who dare to question party policy (he just recently caused a stir when he labelled the Russian opposition “enemies of the people and traitors”, and suggested variously that they should be imprisoned, admitted to psychiatric institutions, and fed to his Caucasian shepherd dog “Tarzan”).
The second of Ramzan’s performances – the private show targeted at the Kremlin elite – is the more interesting of the two, since it’s here that we can gauge how far he’s really willing to bend the knee. By the same token, however, it is the more difficult of the two performances to observe; it has to be pieced together from anomalies in the despot’s behaviour – moments where he has appeared to spring into action, or out of it, despite having no self-interested reason to do so. Prime examples of such anomalies include the dispatch of the Death Battalion to fight in Eastern Ukraine (a unit comprised entirely of Chechen state troops, all of whom supposedly applied for leave in order to fight as “volunteers” in the conflict); the intimidation and assassination – by Chechens – of Russian dissidents who seemed to have no serious quarrel either with their assailants or Ramzan himself (e.g. the hit on Boris Nemtsov outside the Kremlin in 2015, and the more recent assaults of Mikhail Kasyanov and Alexei Navalny – the leaders of the two largest Russian opposition parties); and, perhaps most tellingly, Ramzan’s numerous 180 degree policy reversals following stern words from Moscow centre (e.g. the overturning, in 2006, of a total ban on “anything that comes out of Denmark”, which Kadyrov had implemented in 2005 as a response to Kurt Westergaard’s infamous Mohammad cartoons; or the more recent overturning, in March, of a counter-terrorism scheme that would have required all 14-35 year olds to carry “spiritual-moral passports” detailing, among other things, their clan and the particular interpretation of Islam they subscribed to).
Kadyrov is often portrayed by western media outlets as being one of the globe’s more eccentric and colourful tyrants. There are, for example, reams of articles discussing his bizarre Instagram account (which has 1.7 million followers, and features everything from videos of him training with Chechen special forces to making online pleas for followers to vote in Russia’s “New Star 2016” singing competition), his impressive collections of animals and sports cars, and his visits from acclaimed international celebrities like Liz Hurley and Gerard Depardieu.
The truth, however, is that Kadyrov has the same simple tastes as most dictators: he wants money for himself and his fiefdom, and he wants the freedom to run that fiefdom as he sees fit. These are things that, at least for the last thirteen years, Putin been more than happy to provide:
The Caucasian belt – the string of small republics that lie on the northern rim of the Caucasus mountain range – occupies a unique position in the Russian account books. It is one of a small group of regions known as “subsidy zones” – places which, for one reason or another, get nearly their entire budget straight from the Kremlin coffers. In the case of Chechnya, the exact figure (at least for 2014, which is the last year on public record) was 56.9 billion roubles, or roughly 82% of its budget, with similar figures being reported by neighbouring Ingushetia (86%) and Dagestan (70%).
The justification for such gigantic subsidies differs from case to case. For some regions, it is a permanent arrangement, since they aren’t ever really expected to be able to support themselves (the newly obtained territory of Crimea falls into this category, as do many of the more remote parts of Siberia), but for others it is supposed to be a merely temporary measure to help them recover from some recent calamity. This is the category into which the Caucasian belt is meant to fall – the calamities being, variously, the second Chechen war and the South Ossetian war, both of which decimated the regions in which they were fought, and sent large number of refugees flowing to neighbouring areas.
What is curious is that, nearly seven years (and one global financial crisis) on from those calamities, Russian federal funding to the Caucasian belt hasn’t dropped by a single rouble. In fact, it has more than doubled. Between 2000 and 2010 (i.e. in the period when the bulk of the reconstruction ought to have been happening), the Russian treasury gave the equivalent of 30 billion dollars US to the Caucasus region (an average of 3 billion USD per year, in other words). In 2012, and against the express recommendations of the Federal Accounts Chamber (who noted, pointedly, that almost 20% of Chechnya’s budget that year (7.9 billion roubles) had gone entirely unaccounted for), Putin announced a massive new injection of cash into the region – the equivalent of 80 billion dollars USD to be doled out between 2012 and 2025 (an average of 6.2 billion USD per year).
But it isn’t just Chechnya’s federal funding that seems to have an unspoken ‘protected status’; Ramzan’s personal wealth is off limits too. A farcical audit in 2009 (part of a country-wide investigation into official corruption) concluded that nothing was amiss with his 2008 tax return, in which he reported his net income as 3.4 million roubles ($108,573 USD), and his only property a spartan 36 square metre apartment in Grozny. The chairman of the audit, when pressed on whether the Kadyrov could really be living so modestly, remarked dryly that “there is no need to feel sorry for him”.
In reality, Ramzan is a billionaire. While he likely does skim off some portion of Chechnya’s federal funding for himself (exiled oligarch Michael Khodorkovsky alleges the portion is substantial), most of his earnings derive from the notorious ‘Akhmad Kadyrov Regional Public Fund’. The fund, named after Ramzan’s father, was established in 2004, with the ostensible aim of providing “charitable assistance to citizens in need and [creating] jobs for the republic’s population”. In actuality, it is an extortion racket of astronomical proportions. Every Chechen worker is required to ‘volunteer’ between 10 and 15 percent of their earnings to the fund each month (those who refuse risk dismissal, or worse), plus additional contributions as the board sees fit (as it did in 2014 when the Terek soccer team needed to purchase a new player).
Once these so called donations enter the fund’s vaults, no one knows precisely what happens to them. Occasionally a specific expenditure will be announced – the financing of some reconstruction project, say, or the purchase of medical supplies for a hospital – but such announcements are few and far between, and most of the fund’s 3.5 billion rouble (52 million USD) monthly revenue goes completely unaccounted for. The few payments that investigative reporters have been able to track indicate that the fund is, essentially, Kadyrov’s personal bank account. It covered the entire cost of his extravagant 35th birthday, for example, as well as his more recent gift of 16 Harley Davidsons to the Chechen branch of the Night Wolves (a pro-Putin bikie gang that he joined in 2014).
- A free hand
Kadyrov has had nearly total control over Chechnya’s internal affairs since federal troops left the region (at his strident urging) in 2009. Once they were out of the way, the only force with any real power in the republic was Kadyrov’s personal army, the 30,000 strong “Kadyrovtsy”. Originally formed to bodyguard Ramzan’s father, Akhmad, the Kadyrovtsy’s numbers were greatly expanded towards the end of the second Chechen war as a result of Ramzan’s decision to offer full amnesty to separatist fighters who agreed to swap sides and join the outfit (in 2004, it was estimated that nearly 70% of its fighters were defected separatists).
Having such a force at his beck and call is what allows Kadyrov to shamelessly skim off 10-15% of every Chechen’s salary. It is also what allows him to terrorize local rights groups with such impunity. The two most prominent groups that have worked in Chechnya are Memorial and the Committee to Prevent Torture. Memorial shut down all its Chechen operations in 2009 after one of their senior activists, Natalia Estemirova, was kidnapped, shot, and dumped in a ditch in neighbouring Ingushetia. The Committee to Prevent Torture continues to operate in the republic, but now rotates which staff are stationed there – a decision it made following a string of brazen attacks on its employees and property (the group’s offices in Grozny were burned to the ground last year, and just a few months ago it had a van full of visiting journalists stopped on the road and beaten viciously, before having their vehicle torched in front of them).
The real test of Ramzan’s leash is not what he’s allowed to get away with in Chechnya (Putin has little interest in that, so long as it stays out of the media), but what he’s allowed to get away with in Russia proper, and abroad. Looking at the facts available, the answer seems to be: quite a lot.
Consider just the assassinations. Since the beginning of the second Chechen war, the Kadyrov clan’s greatest rival has been the Yamadaev clan. The two initially competed for the Kremlin’s favour, but – when the Kadyrovs eventually came out on top – the Yamadaevs had to settle for command of the Vostok (East) battalion, and control over a select few areas. In 2008, after Ramzan had diluted the Yamadaev’s power even further by establishing the new Sever (North) and Yug (South) battalions under his own control, the conflict between the two clans began in earnest, and the senior figures of the Yamadaev family (namely the three brothers Sulim, Ruslan, and Isa Yamadaev) were forced to give up control of Vostok and flee Chechnya entirely. Over the next two years, all three were the targets of assassinations.
On September 24, 2008, Ruslan Yamadaev was machine-gunned in his car at an intersection in Moscow. Six months later the second Yamadaev brother, Sulim, was shot in the back of the neck, point blank, in an underground garage in Dubai. Police involved in the investigation testified that Adam Delimkhanov (Ramzan’s right hand man and protégé) had provided the killers with the murder weapon – a gold-plated 9mm pistol – and Interpol added him to their wanted list, but Putin refused to acknowledge the connection, and subsequently appointed Delimkhanov as a deputy in the Russian parliament. In 2009 the third brother, Isa, survived an assassination attempt by his own bodyguard, a man named Yusupov, who confessed in interrogation that he had received his orders from Ramzan directly, and that his family were being kept as collateral in case he should renege (Kadyrov denied the allegations, and Yusupov was sentenced to 8 and a half years by a Moscow court).
But it doesn’t stop there. Anna Politkovskaya – murdered in her stairwell in Moscow in 2006, not a year after Ramzan had told her in person that she “ought to be shot”, and less than a week before she was to testify against him in a case concerning abductions in Chechnya. Umar Israilov – Ramzan’s former bodyguard, mowed down in Vienna in broad daylight after he had defected and made a submission to the European Human Rights Commission detailing the horrors he’d witnessed in Kadyrov’s employ. Akhmed Zakayev – the ex-prime minister of Chechnya’s government, who only survived a 2012 attempt on his life because MI5 managed to foil the would-be-hitman before he could carry out his orders (orders which he confessed came from Kadyrov). This is not even to touch on the numerous lower profile killings, such as the elimination of Chechen diaspora elements in Istanbul (there were six such hits between 2009 and 2011, and another just last November)
So what’s the problem? What’s got our mine-shaft canaries all riled up?
Well, the trouble is that both parties to the above bargain are increasingly unable, or unwilling, to uphold their side of it. Ramzan’s running his (already very strained) leash; the security situation in Chechnya is on track to hit the fan; the Kremlin’s running out of money; and the Siloviki (the ex-KGB members of Putin’s inner circle) are finally beginning to bridle after a decade of looking the other way.
In other circumstances, these strains might be resolved by both parties agreeing a new, less onerous bargain – Putin might, for example, accept a worsened security situation in Chechnya in return for Kadyrov accepting a drop in federal funding – but with both men’s strongman image on the line (and both men’s opponents searching hungrily for the cracks in said image), neither can really afford to do this.
The result, as I will argue more comprehensively in the next installment of this two-part series, is an inexorable frog march towards Chechnya’s oblivion.