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The Kremlin’s renegade puppet in Chechnya

by Dmitry Shlapentokh

MOSCOW — Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, recently proposed to Ahmed Zakaev, a leader of the nationalistic and comparatively moderate Chechen opposition, that he return to Chechnya. Kadyrov promised Zakaev amnesty and various positions ranging from director of the local theater to minister of culture.

Zakaev looked ready to accept the proposal. His position in the nationalist opposition was weak. There seem to be few, if any, fighters in Chechnya who recognize him as commander; his recent attempt to send an emissary to create a fighting unit directly under his command was not successful.

At the same time, Zakaev maintained rather friendly relations with Kadyrov, whose achievements — making Chechnya practically independent — he implicitly acknowledged. The Kremlin supposedly would not have opposed the deal.

But, although Zakaev was one of the most moderate members of the Chechen resistance, an amnesty for him needed the Kremlin’s approval, and he does not seem to have received it, which is probably why he refused Kadyrov’s offer. But the reason the Kremlin balked at offering Zakaev an amnesty is unlikely to be related to him personally, but rather to Kadyrov.

The return to Chechnya of an amnestied Zakaev would greatly increase Kadyrov’s prestige. But the Kremlin wants to avoid this, owing to Kadyrov’s growing power and its general unease with a Russian Muslim elite that, while formally acknowledging Russian suzerainty, increasingly demands a redistribution of power within the Russian Federation.

For most of the past two decades, jihadists in the Caucasus and Central Asia were a major source of concern for the Kremlin. Fear of “Talibanization” of the Caucasus prompted the Kremlin’s recent announcement that Russian Muslims should be protected from extremist propaganda from abroad, and that Russian Muslim education and spiritual life should be controlled in order to direct them away from extremism.

It was fear of extremism, as well as a more general increase violence, that led to the rise of the Kadyrov clan in 2004, when the Kremlin decided to engage in a “Chechenization” of the conflict. The plan implied that the Kremlin would provide the Kadyrovs — first Akhmad Kadyrov, and then, after his death, his son, Ramzan — broad autonomy (independence in all but name) and huge sums of money.

The Kremlin closed its eyes to Kadyrov’s amnesty of former guerrillas and their inclusion in his paramilitary units. In exchange, Kadyrov was to wage war against the remaining Islamist resistance and thus relieve Moscow of the burden of shedding Russian blood, or at least minimize the cost in Russian casualties.

The plan initially worked. Kadyrov was able to create a strong force that could fight the guerrillas, basically on its own. Kadyrov’s efforts can also be credited with ending major terrorist attacks in Russia’s heartland, such as those that occurred in Moscow in 2002 and in Beslan in 2004.

Kadyrov seemed an effective antidote to the jihadists. Still, the logical conclusion of the Kremlin’s Kadyrov policy appears to be precisely what it sought to prevent — Chechen independence — when it engaged in the first Chechen war almost a generation ago.

Receiving from the Kremlin virtual carte blanche to do what he wants in Chechnya, Kadyrov made genuine efforts to transform himself into a popular leader. It is clear that he has not brought down the unemployment rate and has no intention of ending corruption. Still, he can be credited for some tangible results in bringing Chechnya a modicum of normality.

The restoration of the capital, Grozny, was one of his clear achievements. Grozny was totally destroyed during the first Chechen war; both Russian and foreign observers compared it with World War II Stalingrad and assumed that it would be impossible to restore the city. It was suggested that a new Chechen capital be built. Yet, having enjoyed a huge subsidy from Moscow, Kadyrov has rebuilt Grozny and provided it with some security.

Kadyrov also catered to the spiritual aspirations of the Chechen majority. He rejected Wahhabism — the ideological framework of the jihadists. But he maintained that Islam is an essential part of the Chechen tradition and presented himself as a leader who fully understood this. So he encouraged an Islamic dress code and built a huge mosque — one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in Europe.

All of this brought Kadyrov wide support among the Chechen population. Even those who dislike him sometimes conclude that he is the best of all possible options, and he has improved his position by persistently weeding out Chechen military forces that are not directly under his command. His most recent effort was the liquidation of the “Vostok” battalion, despite its being an integral part of the Russian Army.

It was probably inevitable that Kadyrov’s increasing power would worry the Kremlin, especially after the Kremlin itself created a precedent for secession by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 2008 war with Georgia. Allowing Zakaev’s return would have worsened matters by increasing Kadyrov’s prestige at home, as well as his international visibility and legitimacy. That would have pushed Kadyrov even further away from Russian control at a time when the Kremlin has become increasingly unable, and possibly reluctant, to purchase his loyalty.

Dmitry Shlapentokh teaches history at the University of Indiana, South Bend. Copyright 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)