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‘No alternative to Kadyrov in Chechnya’ Experts reflect on the ‘Chechen dream’ and on changes in North Caucasus

Source: Meduza
Photo: Said Tsarnayev / RIA Novosti / Scanpix

Russian public figures and journalists have recently been paying less attention to the North Caucasus region of Russia, as eyes have turned to fighting in East Ukraine and changes taking place in Kiev. But Chechnya briefly came back on the radar in December 2014, when militants attacked its otherwise stable capital, Grozny, and then again in March, when investigators found what the media call “a Caucasian trace” in the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

To find out more about what’s happening in the North Caucasus, Meduza’s special correspondent Ilya Azar spoke with the authors of a 2014 report called North Caucasus: Quo Vadis? — Konstantin Kazenin, Senior researcher at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, and Irina Starodubrovskaya, Head of the Department of Political Economy and Regional Development at the Gaidar Institute.

They say that now the time has come to choose between the Russian secret services (FSB) and Ramzan Kadyrov. Do you think that the security forces are really trying to remove Kadyrov from power?

Konstantin Kazenin

Kazenin: I don’t know if there are such plans at the very top. But if they were, I know what would be happening currently. No matter how we see Chechnya today and what we think is causing its problems, any political project associated with a change of power in Chechnya needs to provide an answer the question "what next?" And, frankly, I can’t see any obvious alternative in Chechnya now.

Any kind of transition period would bring enormous risks with it. I’m trying to justify Kadyrov’s eternal rule and to say that there is no alternative to the current system, but any major changes would be a very difficult, risky surgical-like operation. Anyone who moves to make changes without understanding the risks and potential costs of this transition phase is not being responsible.

Irina Starodubrovskaya

Starodubrovskaya: Obviously, no matter how Kadyrov tries to depict himself, the very existence of such a Chechnya and such a Kadyrov pose a challenge to the status quo. This is because the region has its own private army and because Kadyrov is a charismatic leader who people think of second after Putin, or at least third. Such a situation might annoy some people, because he clearly stands out like a sore thumb. Theoretically, at least.

Kazenin: There’s a huge gap between the degree of independence enjoyed by Kadyrov in his region and that of leaders in other regions of the North Caucasus. The gap has increased over the past five to seven years, mainly because the leaders of the other regions have lost some of their independence. This was connected to changes in personnel at the top and changes in the relationship between regional authorities and security forces in other regions of the Caucasus.

But is there anything that could force Putin to replace Kadyrov?

Starodubrovskaya: It’s pointless to keep trying to read the tea leaves. But am under the impression that Kadyrov has been actively changing his position. His region is getting a little too tight for him, and he is laying claim to the leadership of the whole Caucasus at least, and to the role of protecting Islam. The situation is unstable in this sense, and any changes could create many different outcomes.

Human rights activists in Chechnya say that Kadyrov’s security forces, who used to solve problems by killings and kidnappings, now prefer less extreme ways of dealing with them. Did something change in their understanding of how to deal with things they don’t like?

Starodubrovskaya: I don’t feel that the system in Chechnya is based purely on power and oppression. It’s much more complicated, and, unlike Dagestan, there’s an existing social contract, where loyalty to Kadyrov comes in exchange for career advancement. In Dagestan the old elites have remained in power, and older people occupy all the privileged positions; it’s very difficult for the young to make their way up. In Chechnya, the old elite is not there, and people who have any skills or who are at least able and willing to show unquestioning support for the official political course are very much in demand. This model is just as effective at guaranteeing stability as oppression. Even so, the conflict surrounding [the Head of the "Committee against Torture"] Igor Kalyapin shows that sometimes quite harsh measures can also be enacted.

But at least they weren’t killed, like Natalia Estemirova. They were just pushed out of the region.

Kazenin: We can’t definitively connect specific kidnappings and other crimes directly with the leader of Chechnya. It is obvious that the environment there produces brutality, and apparently some of these people are close to official structures, but we can’t make any presumption of guilt.

 As for Chechen society, from the vantage point of Dagestan and Ingushetia, Chechnya is seen as quite unique. When Grozny [the capital of Chechnya] started looking like it does now, people from Makhachkala [the capital of Dagestan] went to see it like it was one of the wonders of the world. But the "uniqueness" of Chechnya isn’t limited to the appearance of its capital. In Chechnya, because all the old ways of life were destroyed after the war, the authorities had to rebuild the entire social structure. None of the neighboring countries had to go through this process. Of course, the entire North Caucasus is going through a phase of breaking with traditional customs. There’s mass migration to the cities; the old traditional ancestral ties are being sidelined. With a different pace of life, old ties and old relationships are evolving into something different. But after the war in Chechnya, the social order wasn’t just transformed — it was built up again from scratch.

Starodubrovskaya: I don’t agree on several points. Firstly, I’ve got a feeling that the war actually promoted a revival of Chechnya’s traditional tribal structures, which, in Chechnya, are a way to protect against dictatorship. It’s a grassroots clan mechanism that allows people to respond flexibly to government pressure. And from this point of view, I don’t see at all how the government can claim that they want to see a revival of these structures, as they say they do; all their actions have, on the contrary, been about destroying them. 
To demand that parents call the police on their children if they behave ‘improperly’ is an absolutely clear statement that the system is trying to destroy traditional family relationships.

Do you mean the families of the militants whose houses were burned down?

Starodubrovskaya: Yes. People coming in disguises into other people’s homes, destroying their houses and then saying that they were “just following adat” [a term referring to general local customs observed by Muslim communities in the North Caucasus]. I don’t know of any adat where masked men are involved, because adat is all about self-organization and about society regulating itself.

Burned family home of Imran Utsimiev, in the village of Alpatovo, in the Naur district of Chechnya
Photo: Memorial

The very idea of ​​actively promoting young people in exchange for loyalty, and not in accordance with tribal traditions, is a mechanism that is meant to destroy traditional society. Today, there’s this “Chechen dream” — if you work well and show your loyalty actively and defiantly, then Ramzan Kadyrov will notice, invite, praise you, bestow honors upon you, promote you to a higher position. In this region, where power is supposed to be based on tradition and adat, all of this looks very strange.

The second point has to do with how Grozny is perceived in other regions. On the one hand, they say that it looks more attractive and much more comfortable than Makhachkala, but Grozny feels like a dead city. Makhachkala is a city of the living, an active city, a city with its own character and energy, but in Grozny no urban environment has developed. In the Caucasus, people have the feeling that Dagestan is an area of ​​freedom, and that Chechnya is one of oppression.

Kazenin: But in other regions of the Caucasus, it’s not just the family unit playing the main role; there are larger communities. For example, they have people who came from the same village or the same district. Because of the competition between these large groups, Dagestan today really is an area of ​​freedom in the Caucasus. Press freedom and freedom for competing political organizations create a situation where different groups stand in opposition to each other. In Chechnya, such communities were broken up during the war, so they had to re-establish the power elite on completely different principles.


It seems to me that the worst Soviet Stalinist system has been re-created in Chechnya, in the sense that people are not willing to say anything openly and on the record against Kadyrov, but only in dire situations in the safety of their kitchen they may talk about the lawlessness of the security forces.

Starodubrovskaya: The Stalinist system was built exactly on these same principles. It was built not only on repression, but also offered very fast upward mobility tracks because those at the top were constantly being removed. This is in line with what we’ve been saying. As for the harsh brutality, of course it exists, but it's so obvious that this simply isn’t worth talking about. It’s something that everyone knows. Interestingly, the system isn’t based on oppression only, but has a major stabilizing element, because in fact even human right defenders still exist there somehow.

Well, not anymore.

Starodubrovskaya: They do exist and have somehow existed all along. I don’t believe that systems can be based on oppression alone. It’s even less free than in the rest of the country, it’s certainly true, and people really are afraid to speak, but then again it's not just because they are being oppressed. In Dagestan, for example, you can’t deny that there’s oppression too: people also disappear, there’s also torture, and, nevertheless, it’s a much freer environment. It seems to me that this is due to the fact that there are urban communities and that people know that if they get into trouble, they won’t be left alone. In Chechnya, there’s no city community, it hasn’t had a chance to grow, and so the individual is left alone against the system.

Kazenin: When we talk about people's attitudes to power in Chechnya, it’s important to remember about post-war syndrome. In people’s minds, there are only two choices: either this system, for better or worse, or war again. This will probably gradually recede into the past, but right now it’s still there.

In Dagestan, the system itself is divided amongst various ethnic groups. In Chechnya, is any opposition possible at all, or is anyone who opposes himself to Kadyrov just destroyed?

Starodubrovskaya: If we talk about real opposition in Dagestan today, it’s the religious opposition, which is not based on ethnic factors.

Are you talking about the Salafis?

Starodubrovskaya: The Salafi Movement is just one of them. Non-traditional Islam in itself is very fragmented; their conflicts with each other are very serious. It’s better if we call it the "Islamic opposition" In these groups, there is 70 to 80 percent of marriages among young people are mixed marriages.

Kazenin: That sounds very unusual for Dagestan...

Starodubrovskaya: In Dagestan, it’s very rare to see marriages even outside of people’s villages, and Muslim youth really try to demonstrate that they stand in contrast to the traditional order. This oppositional environment is first and foremost an urban environment, which doesn’t exist in Chechnya, so the formation of any kind of protest environment would be very difficult. Even so, something is starting to change. People’s personal appearance and dress don’t always conform to what is officially demanded. After you talk to them for a while, they begin to give little hints that they don’t agree with everything that’s going on in Chechnya, and that they don’t relate to the official brand of Islam which has been imposed on the country.

So, only Islamic opposition is possible there?

Starodubrovskaya: When people talk about The Salafis or Wahhabis, they imagine people with guns running around the forest and committing suicide attacks. When we speak of religious opposition in Dagestan, we’re talking about moderate Salafism. These people set up a peaceful, civilized protest environment which operates in the existing legal framework. From this point of view, it’s difficult to predict how it will evolve in Chechnya.

A lot of Chechens live abroad and these people often come back, and they have a completely different outlook. Maybe they’ll somehow be integrated into the power structures and change them from the inside. I don’t really believe it myself, but I’ve heard this idea.

Kazenin: Regarding socially active groups in Dagestan: they aren’t all religious. And if the Dagestan elites would really change in the future, I’m sure their ideological makeup would be very mixed.

As for the Chechen diaspora abroad, our view of this group is pretty skewed. We see them in two ways: people like [Akhmed] Zakayev, or those sitting for years in refugee camps. In fact, many Chechens who went to Europe during the Second Chechen War integrated quite successfullu. I personally know a Chechen family. They all live at home in the village, but one of the brothers works as a driver in Belgium, driving passenger buses. It's not easy to get a job like that there. But foreign Chechens are not a united group. That said, as a social stratum, unusual against the general backdrop of the Caucasus today, they may end up playing some role.

Ramzan Kadyrov inspects the troops in Grozny, December 28, 2014
Photo: Musa Sadulaev / AP / Scanpix

Zakayev once said that in Chechnya there is an Ichkerian underground waiting for their time to come. Is it true that there are people in Chechny who are holding their hopes out for independence, or is there only large-scale support for Kadyrov? 

Starodubrovskaya: There are a lot of people who think about the national Chechen state, but they see Kadyrov as their leader. When you start asking about how they get through this life, they begin to explain that Kadyrov is building a more comfortable, more civilized society.

There is a rumor that when Putin stops pouring money in, a third Chechen war could start; is this substantiated?

Kazenin: Quite the opposite; I think that in Chechnya military escalation will meet even more resistance than in other regions of the Caucasus, because people are so sick of war.

Starodubrovskaya: The generation that remembers the war personally is still alive. People appreciate stability, appreciate that there is no war, and they are ready to let the government get away with a lot for that.

Burning building Dom pechati (Printing House), in which there were militants, who attacked Grozny. December 4, 2014
Photo: Elena Afonina / TASS / Vida Press

More than a year has passed since the publication of your report North Caucasus: Quo Vadis? Has there been any progress in solving any of the problems you wrote about?

Starodubrovskaya: I would say that two things have changed. In terms of the economy, the government has begun to realize the futility of megaprojects. On the one hand, it’s about money, and there are other parties making claims for these tourist development opportunities. On the other hand, it’s clear that the system doesn’t work the way they expected it to.

They didn’t think it would go this way? I thought the resorts of the Caucasus were just a money embezzlement scheme.

Kazenin: It is clear that there was money embezzlement involved, but if it was only that, it’s unlikely the resort project would have had such huge PR. They hoped to captivate the imagination of a large part of society, and for the elite to fund the projects, but it virtually all came to nothing. There have been some results in Karachay-Cherkessia, but there were already nice resorts there before.

Starodubrovskaya: Karachay-Cherkessia is a very special place in the North Caucasus. 70 percent of the population there trusts the law enforcement agencies, which means a lot in the Caucasus. And this number seems quite plausible to me.

Kazenin: It’s a pity that government is not interested in this republic, because there were serious problems, but they have found some very interesting and diverse ways of solving their own issues with religious extremism and ethnic relations.

And speaking of safety: was the December militant attack on Grozny an exception, or was it evidence that there is still no stability in Chechnya?

Starodubrovskaya: The process of reform is very complex, because there are two trends occurring at the same time. One is that people are weary after all the fighting, and at the same time Dagestan has religious opposition representatives, who are very actively trying to get a dialogue started again. So far the state hasn’t given an adequate response, but there is some kind of progress underway.

 On the other hand, we’re seeing the kind of radicalization which goes with an Islamic state. Lifting the prohibitions had a very powerful effect: it’s always been known that the idols should be destroyed, but no one thought about going to the Hermitage museum with a sledgehammer, it was inconceivable. Now it’s not. 

On the other hand, the situation around Charlie Hebdo had a lot of influence. Radicalization isn’t about people not being willing to hide out in the woods anymore — a lot of people have realized this is futile. Those who wanted to have gone to Syria. Radicalization is more about a diminishing readiness to cooperate, about turning inwards and focusing on internal Islamic faith issues.

By the way, is the subject of Charlie Hebdo so important to Russian and Chechen Muslims, that they would want to kill a man who seems to sympathize with Charlie?

Starodubrovskaya: People do react very strongly to this subject; much more seriously than can be imagined from here. In a situation when there is general hysteria in the country, it is very difficult to say what is in the minds of individuals and how they might respond. But the choice of Nemtsov, of course, seems very strange.

Participants at the rally "Love for the Prophet Muhammad" in defense of Islamic values ​​and against cartoons about the Prophet. Grozny. January 19, 2015
Photo: Valeriy Matitsyn / TASS / Vida Press

Kazenin: The readiness to kill comes down to a particular person and his or her identity. But if we’re talking about the public reaction in general, I know that tens of thousands of people went from Dagestan to the rally in Chechnya. No one forced them to go.

Why was there no condemnation from the Muslim community of the shooting of those cartoonists? Or statements about the fact that destroying the ancient Assyrian city is wrong? Does this suggest veiled support for such actions?

Starodubrovskaya: People suffer from serious internal conflicts and don’t know how to react to these things. Even if they don’t express it out loud, it's true. They are very offended by liberals, in particular, by [the radio station] Echo of Moscow for their very tough anti-Islamic stance.

Your report mentioned an ‘image crises.’ Over the last year has the image of Chechens improved? There is now a new enemy in the guise of the terrible “Dill" [Russian slang name for Ukrainians], and people seem to have stopped talking about people from Russia’s Caucasus region.

Kazenin: The Caucasus region always played this special role in Russian propaganda, which needs a certain enemy to mobilize the population. Now the focus has shifted.

As for a more positive perception of Caucasians in general, the positive image of the Caucasus which now appears in the media was largely invented by the media itself. Along with the general drift toward traditionalism throughout Russia, they are trying to portray the Caucasus region as a kind of sanctuary where these traditional values ​​are preserved. In fact, this is not a sanctuary at all. The main conclusion of all of our research is that the North Caucasus is now undergoing a fundamental break with the old traditions and there is a struggle of ideas about how it is going to develop.

Starodubrovskaya: Before, it was very common to talk about the idea of a civilized, almost democratic Russia, which was being somehow dragged backwards by a primitive, barbaric Caucasus. Now the whole of Russia has become like the Caucasus, and the models are converging in ways that we never would have liked. In central Russia, Chechnya is perceived as an example of best practice – a perception much more positive than perceptions within Chechnya itself.

In recent years, there have been rumors that Kadyrov was almost considered as a candidate for a ministerial position, or the position of prime minister, and later maybe even president. How realistic is this?

Starodubrovskaya: This sounds like something out of a horror movie.

But does he have any ambitions?

Starodubrovskaya: He already feels constrained there [in Chechnya] and really wants to play a more important role. But it’s hard to say what that role might be.

Kazenin: Expanding his influence in the Caucasus has many objective and subjective obstacles. One of these subjective obstacles is the complex relationship between the officials in Chechnya and in Ingushetia. There are problems with Dagestan, but they are more about objective factors. Now we are talking about the restoration of the Chechen area in the Dagestan Aukhovski region, where Chechens lived before they were deported in 1944. This issue relates to solving a vast array of different difficult questions relating to displacement of the current multiethnic population of the area and to the borders of the area. Many people in Dagestan believe that sooner or later the Chechen leader will have to make his position clear on this issue, but some people in Dagestan will like what he says, and others won’t.

Ilya Azar