How Russia is Losing Domestic Control in Chechnya

by: Gabriella Gricius

Chechnya is often associated with its history of violence throughout the 1990s. In 1992, the republic declared independence from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, starting the first Chechen War. While Chechen forces initially claimed victory against Russia in 1996, their success was short-lived. The conflict was reawakened in 1999 when more than 300 Russians died in a series of terror attacks across Russia. Newly elected President Vladimir Putin blamed these attacks on Chechen separatists and sent in Russian troops with the cooperation of Akhmad Kadyrov, Chechnya’s chief mufti, to regain control of the region.

After two conflicts with Russia spanning over a decade, Chechnya lost its independence in 2000. In its place, the Chechen Republic within Russia was headed by Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated by Chechen Islamists in Grozny in 2004. He was succeeded by his son, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was chosen by Putin to crush the enduring insurgency in the Northern Caucuses. In return for subduing this insurgency, Kadyrov was given access to large sums of money with which to rebuild the Chechen Republic, much of which went to his own personal coffers.

In February 2007, Kadyrov was appointed the President of Chechen Republic, a position from which he has been able to both enrich himself and his allies. Putin may have been expected to reign in his deputy’s excesses as he has done with many oligarchs. However, as long as Kadyrov maintains stability in Chechnya, Putin will continue to ignore human rights abuses and complaints from the region. In essence, Putin has no motivation to stop Kadyrov. He has little to no leverage over Kadyrov since the region’s security is maintained by Kadyrov and there is no obvious successor candidate. Neil Hauer points out that since at least 1,000 security personnel were killed by the Northern Caucasus insurgency from 2009-2017, it is no surprise that stability is Putin’s number one concern.

The reality of Chechnya is that under Kadyrov’s rule, it exercises an enormous amount of independence and sovereignty. This significant autonomy has provided an impetus for the republic to become less “Russian” regarding both culture and adherence to the already loose rule of law in the Russian state. Concurrently, this balancing act between stability and sovereignty underpins an increase in nationalistic and Islamist values in the region.

Furthermore, according to the OSCE Rapporteur’s Report on Alleged Human Rights Violations and Impunity in the Chechen Republic, its legacy of impunity has continued. Not only did the report confirm allegations of harassment, persecution, and arbitrary arrests, but it also confirmed accounts of detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions. A concerning aspect of the report was the finding that Chechnya is “treated like a special case, an area of exception, where the institutions of the Russian Federation are not effective, and a special regime of impunity is tolerated for the sake of stability.”

Given the worsening climate of intimidation in Chechnya, it begs the question of why Russia is so concerned with stability when there are many other concerns such as the extent of human rights abuses. As Neil Hauer argues, Chechnya’s history plays a role as does the unique place it holds in Russia’s collective memory. After the terrorist attacks in 1999 and the subsequent war in Chechnya, many Russians and Chechens alike are wary of entering another violent conflict. Furthermore, in the months before the Sochi 2014 Olympics, Russian security forces, with help from Kadyrov, captured or killed nearly all of the insurgency’s leaders while many other extremists left to join ISIS in Syria. By now, most if not all of the insurgent leaders have been knocked out. If Russia’s reliance on Kadyrov as a strongman were to root out the insurgency, then supposedly these actions would have succeeded in giving Putin leverage to call for new leadership.

However, with Kadyrov’s removal of insurgents, he has solidified his regional standing and power. In 2018, he made a deal with the Ingush Parliament which gives Chechnya a broad swath of land and set up a border delineation committee with Dagestan to discuss land issues. Kadyrov has also been establishing independent ties with foreign countries such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.

The only thing explicitly linking Russia and Chechnya is the flow of money. The Chechen government receives around 85 percent of their state budget from the Russian state, most of which is siphoned off by allies and Kadyrov himself for alleged necessary infrastructure projects.

However, Putin and Kadyrov’s relationship is perhaps the most critical factor that must be considered. Despite much of this behavior, including external relations building, rampant corruption, and regional instability, there has been a lack of response from Putin. While it may seem convenient for Putin to conduct a Chechenization policy where he outsources most of the control to Kadyrov, it will ultimately serve to undermine Russian authority in the region. This dilemma is reinforced by a situation where Russia’s influence in Chechnya rests solely on that unstable deal and the relationship between Putin and Kadyrov. Given that Putin’s seemingly final term in office will end in 2024 and Kadyrov’s leadership has no end in sight – it may spark uncertainty in the future. This is particularly poignant given Kadyrov’s recent propensity to eye territory in the neighboring Northern Caucuses countries such as Dagestan and Ingushetia. It remains to be seen if Russia still has control over Chechnya at all.  

Chechnya’s history suggests that the Russian government would not wish to engage in a conflict there. However, given the results of this report and ongoing border revision – Russia may want to rethink its Chechenization policy. How much control can Russia have if they exert no control over the leader of Chechnya itself? Giving Kadyrov more leeway and power might seem to be the easiest option, but in the long term, it may prove to unravel the fragile regional stability of the Caucuses.

*This piece has been amended from its original version.

Gabriella Gricius is a Senior Research Associate at the Public International Law and Policy Group as well as a Staff Writer for Global Security Review.

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