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Is Chechnya's Kadryov a Boon for Russia or a Giant Liability?

Here is an argument that he is a liability as well as a product of Chechnya's own ghosts

Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime in Russia’s republic of Chechnya is by far the worst manifestation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soft authoritarian regime.

Kadyrov’s regime breaches the porous wall between soft and everyday authoritarianism and then some. The tendency in Chechnya is towards totalitarianism. But the quasi-totalitarian and violent Kadyrov regime is as much a manifestation of the North Caucasus’s violent culture as of Putin’s Russia.

Like a block hole, Chechnya effects the space around it. Its renegade despot poses a grave threat to the stability of the Russian Federation and potentially to the survival of Putin and his regime.

Chechnya’s Hybrid Authoritarian-Totalitarian Regime

Recent charges made by the democratic opposition newspaper Novaya gazeta regarding Kadyrov’s close associates and officials abducting, torturing, and perhaps killing Chechen gays is the latest manifestation of the Chechen plague.

If the details of the recent charges are off in terms of their veracity — and as yet there is no evidence that they are — the response of Chechen officials reveals that some of their essence is likely accurate.

Channeling former Iranian president Mahmoud Akmadinejad, Kadyrov proudly explained Chechen dominant cultural strain in a widely reported quote in which he said that the newspaper’s allegations are false, since there are no gays in Chechnya and if there were then their relatives “would have sent them to where they would never return.”

The same day in Grozny’s central mosque an emergency assembly of the leaders of Chechnya’s 24 Sufi Islamic ‘virds’ (subgroups of tariqatsor brotherhoods), various Muslim theologists, and Chechen public opinion leaders.

Official sources claimed 15,000 were in attendance in and around the mosque. Kadyrov advisor Adam Shakhidov, whose speech as well as the entire assembly’s proceedings were broadcast on Chechen television, accused Novaya gazeta‘s staff of slander and designated its members “enemies of our faith and our homeland.”

The assembly adopted a resolution, the second point of which was what Novaya gazeta characterized as “an open and direct call to violence.” The point reads:

“In view of the insult issued to the centuries-old foundations of Chechen society and the dignity of Chechen men, as well as our faith, we promise that retribution will reach the true instigators, wherever they may be with no statute of limitations” .

Chechnya’s chief mufti Salah-Haji Mezhiev confirmed the veracity of, and endorsed the resolution’s content as relayed above and that calls to take revenge were issued at the assembly, said not 15,000 but 20,000 attended, and promised that Novaya gazeta‘s journalists “even more now will pay for their publication about the persecution of gays in the republic.”

In response to a journalist’s question during an RBC interview regarding Novaya gazeta‘s taking the assembly statement as a threat, the Chechen Islamic leader said: “I do not want to call them (Novaya gazeta‘s journalists) people. These creatures can take this resolution any way they want. I know one thing – they will pay for it”. 

In a later interview with ‘Moscow Speaks’ radio the Chechen Muslim cleric again called Novaya gazeta‘s journalists “creatures” who “Allah’s retribution will reach,” adding: They need to have been afraid when the spread unfounded slander”.

Moreover, these threats and alleged crimes are just the latest in a long series of crimes too closely associated with Kadyrov and, on a larger scale, Russia’s Chechens, to be discounted.

Kadyrov has had Chechen political opponents assassinated both at home and abroad. The most prominent example of the latter is the 2009 killing in Dubai of Sulim Yamadaev, head of the powerful Yamadayev clan and a comrade of Ramzan and his father Akhmad during the first Chechen war.

Kadyrov likely stands behind the murders of Novaya gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Russian liberal opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, among others. etc. (on the latter’s murder see the Chechen perpetrators’ confessions at link 1link 2; and link 3).

The perpetrators of these crimes have been captured, but their well-connected initiators have never been brought to justice either because the Kremlin is unable or unable and unwilling to challenge Kadyrov.

Chechnya’s Violent Culture

These crimes are a direct consequence of not just Russian authoritarianism or the brutalization of the first two Chechen wars but of Chechen culture itself. Chechnya’s violent culture has a long pedigree rotted in the centuries-long isolation, and autonomy of mountain life of the Chechen ethnos.

This became evident early on in Russia’s first contacts with the Caucasus mountain peoples. Proximity to Chechnya resulting from Imperial Russia’s creeping expansion south, left the southernmost Russian outposts vulnerable to Chechnya’s raiding culture, akin in ways to that of the Cossacks.

Each spring Chechen warriors would descend from the Caucasus mountains and conduct raids, abductions, and theft in Russian settlements. During the mid- to late 19th century wars of resistance, the Chechens proved themselves to be perhaps the most ferocious Caucasus fighters, with the possible exception of the ethnic Avars and perhaps several other Dagestani ethnic groups. Soviet power largely subdued but did not extinguish Chechen culture still cocooned by the Caucasus landscape.

That culture is built on a Chechens’ ancient culture of family and male honor or krovnaya mest’ or ‘blood revenge’  that requires male members of Chechen clans and families to exact revenge for wrongs, especially violence, committed against their own. 

Krovnaya mest’ and Chechnya’s raiding culture mixed with Soviet quasi-modernization and elements of post-Soviet Russian and global realities to produce a new Chechen militant culture. This explains the references in the April Chechen Sufi assembly’s resolution and the mufti Mezhiev’s statements to ‘Chechen men’, ‘retribution’, and the like.

By the late Soviet period, the Chechens had carved out a large niche in the Soviet gray and black markets. That autonomous space would expand and evolve into the Chechen mafia, proportionally the most powerful and violent ethnic mafia in post-Soviet Russian ‘wild east’ of 1990s.

The leader of the Chechen mafia, Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev, is the likely the ‘zakazchik’ (one who ordered) of the murder American journalist Paul Khlebnikov, who wrote a notable book on the Chechen mafia based on interviews with Nukhaev.

That mafia and Nukhaev were part and parcel of the radical Chechen nationalist-separatist movement that emerged with the Soviet collapse and brought the first Chechen war (Gordon M. Hahn, The Caucasus Emirate: Global Jihadism in the Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond, McFarland, 2014, pp. 81 and 293, fn24).

Contrary to picture provided by Western reporting on that war, the Chechens proportionally were no less violent and brutal in their warfighting than was the Russian army. The Chechens’ mass executions, torture and mutilation of the bodies of Russian prisoners as well as use of the local population as human shields in the face of Russian aerial bombing are a matter of record.

If Dzhokhar Dudaev and his Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI) rebels had the superior strength in numbers and fire power instead of the Russian army, the number of casualties in the first Chechen war would have been no fewer and likely have been far greater than they were.

After a military draw and political divisions in Moscow and Grozny led to the August 1996 Khasavyurt Peace Accord or ceasefire and the May 1997 Moscow Peace Treaty, a de facto independent Chechnya descended into a hell populated only by devils.

The elements included mostly Chechen and Russian criminal elements, ultra-nationalist Chechens, and emerging jihadi elements increasingly associating themselves with Al Qa`ida (AQ) through the figures of the Jordanian Ibn al-Khattab and Chechen filed commander and ChRI ‘prime minister’ Shamil Basaev. 

By 1998 Khattab and Basaev had established a network of training camps funded by AQ, trained and equipped mujahedin from across the North Caucasus and from abroad, and hatched plans to invade the neighboring republic of Dagestan and a establish a Shariah-law based state there.

This plan was carried out in July 1999, with more than a thousand jihadi warriors marching across the Chechen-Dagestani border. Although Russian security forces and Dagestani elements crushed the invasion, Moscow decided on newly-appointed prime minister Vladimir Putin’s initiative to extract the entire Chechen tumor from the Russian body politic. 

The second war had begun. A key policy accompanying the return to war was Putin’s Chechenization policy which relied on the Ramzan’s father, Akhmad, who defected from the ChRI at the beginning of the second war and struck a deal with Moscow in order to pre-empt the growing jihadi threat to the movement and region.

In part due the Kadyrov clan’s defection, the second war led to the ChRI’s defeat on the traditional battlefield by 2001, scattering the ChRI forces. 

By mid-2002 they regrouped and turned to partisan warfare, but the jihadists had now gained the upper hand within the ChRI, subordinating the ChRI constitution to Shariah law. Although the jihadi elements made use of terrorist tactics, the turn to full blown terrorism was consolidated with the jihadi takeover of the ChRI.

In 2007 Doku Abu Usman Umarov declared the ChRI a global jihadist organization, called the Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) or IK, targeting any countries fighting Muslims anywhere in the world.

The same year Ramzan Kadyrov, sponsored by Putin, rose to the presidency of the Chechen Republic, and began using Moscow’s financial largesse and limited Islamization to rebuild the republic, in effect nation-build, and thus co-opt less Islamist, more ultra-nationalistic Chechen fighters back under the Russian fold.

In particular, he formed numerous battalions placed nominally under either Russian GRU or MVD command but actually under Kadyrov’s control. Inter-teip tensions between these units and between some and more and (like the Yamadaev’s Vostok Battalion) less Kadyrov-loyal units would become a source of more conflict and violence in the republic.

By 2012 the IK was carrying out international operations with plots targeting Azerbaijan, Belgium and NATO, and other states and inspiring radicals like the Tsarnaev brothers to hit other targets in and outside Russia.

As I documented in my work and books, several thousand jihadi attacks, including some 56 suicide bombings, were carried out or inspired by the IK in Russia, especially its North Caucasus, during the peak of the IK’s existence from 2007-2013.

It is important to remember, however, that the IK was a multiethnic organization that by 2010 was being increasingly dominated by Dagestanis (Hahn, The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin, chapters 5 and 10).

In late 2012-early 2013 IK mujahedin began making their ‘hijra’ to make jihad in Syria and Iraq, and soon some began to drift from AQ-tied groups to the emerging Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh etc.) or IS.

In 2015 the overwhelming majority of IK amirs and mujahedin switched their loyalty from AQ to the Islamic State (IS), taking the bayat loyalty oath to the IS ‘caliph’ al-Baghdadi, who in turn recongized their bayat an rebranded the IK to be called the Vilaiyat Kavkaz (Caucasus Governate) or VK of the Islamic State.

The North Caucasus fighters, especially Chechens, have proven themselves to be some of the most ruthless mujahedin in Syria and Iraq, and many, like the infamous Georgian Chechen-Kist Tarkhan Batirashvili (Umar al-Shishani or Umar the Chechen), have risen high into the ranks of Syrian and Iraqi jihadi groups, including IS.

The predominance of Chechens among the IK and other North Caucasus fighters in Syria and Iraq is explained by Kadyrov’s harsh regime and the resulting success in quashing the IK’s Chechen branch, the Nokchicho Vilaiyat.

On a lesser scale, a similar history to that laid out above and militant culture to that extant in Chechnya can be found in Ingushetiya, Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus declining along an east-west gradient.

This is much like the east-west gradient of declining Europeanization from Russia running through eastern and central to western Europe. Even Caucasus historians, journalists, and political scientists certainly recognize the importance of this factor. Dagestani journalist Zaur Gaziyev notes: “Our culture is different. If we are slighted or wronged we don’t go and get drunk on vodka. We pick up a gun and go out to murder the one who wronged us”.

Leader of the Kabardin nationalist movement ‘Khase’ Ibragim Yaganov notes: “If a Russian guy can hide from reality in a bottle of vodka, but we drink little.  What we do is immediately take up a weapon, and this protest is expressed in horrible and bloody forms”.

Although Kabardin political scientist Timur Tenov claims that Kabardins “have gotten past this stage,” he says the following about Chechens: “In Chechnya they always respected brute physical force and bright personalities”.

The culture of violence in Chechnya and the rest of the Caucasus has allowed the former case to carve out a broad autonomy and in many ways again de facto independence for the Chechen Republic and even for Chechens across the Russian Federation well-connected in Grozny.

Source: Russian and Eurasian Politics

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