NEW YORK – The involvement of two ethnic Chechens in the Boston Marathon bombing last month came as a brutal reminder of the wars that ravaged the Russian republic more than a decade ago. Less understood is that they aren’t over.
Vladimir Putin said when he first ran for president in 2000 that his “historic mission” was to resolve the situation in the North Caucasus. To do so, he oversaw a second war in Chechnya, already devastated by Russia’s failed attempt to subdue the republic in 1994-1996.
Instead of solving the North Caucasus issue, however, Putin created a monster. To end the fighting, he cut a deal with Chechnya’s rebel Kadyrov clan: In exchange for loyalty to the Kremlin, they received power and reconstruction aid.
This was a medieval deal that made Akhmad Kadyrov, a rebel commander and Sufi mufti, Putin’s feudal liege. The aim was to co-opt the more religiously moderate Sufis among Chechnya’s rebel fighters, marginalize the Salafist jihadists who appear to have fascinated the Boston bombers, and enable the Russian military to declare victory and draw down.
It was a false triumph. Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004. But under his son, Ramzan, Chechnya today remains a gray zone, neither independent, nor under Russian control, nor at peace.
Kadyrov is the only leader in any of Russia’s 21 republics to have his own militia. So sure is he of his indispensability to the fragile Pax Putina in the North Caucasus that he once strode into the Kremlin wearing a tracksuit and jogging shoes. Few others would risk such a mark of disrespect to Putin.
Russia’s writ runs weak in Chechnya. Kadyrov has imposed elements of Islamic law, including a ban on unveiled women in public buildings. He likes to race up and down the capital Grozny’s new Vladimir Putin Avenue at night, occasionally pulling his sports car over to holler at women he considers immodest. His so-called virtue campaigns have included a clampdown on alleged sorcerers.
Putin pays a high price for the allegiance of this warlord. The Russian government spent $30 billion in the North Caucasus from 2000 to 2010, and plans to deliver a further $80 billion of federal funds to the region’s 9 million population by 2025. Among the projects this tide of cash will pay for is a world-class ski resort in Chechnya. Even so, unemployment in the republic remains at more than 36 percent; poverty in the villages is grinding; and hundreds of people die every year in continuing clashes with mainly jihadist guerrillas.
Kadyrov spends Putin’s largesse like a gulf sheik. Grozny, reduced to rubble during the wars, now has blue-glass office towers and a state-of-the-art soccer stadium (Kadyrov’s father was killed in the old one) with the capacity to hold 30,000 people.
Now 36 years old, Chechnya’s president likes to pose for the cameras with his gold-plated pistol, and he posts snaps of his life on the photo-sharing site Instagram. In an average week, he might cuddle a baby tiger, wave traditional swords or box government ministers. (Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev identified with a long Chechen boxing tradition.)
Kadyrov is untouchable in Russia and, as a result, Putin’s political opponents see the Chechen leader as the Kremlin’s gangster ally, licensed to operate a mafia network throughout the federation.
These accusations, dismissed by the Kremlin and Kadyrov alike, have turned Russian nationalism upside down. When Russian troops charged into Chechnya, it was the nationalists who demanded that not a centimeter of territory be allowed to secede. Now, furious at the price that Russians have to pay for this policy, the same nationalists are screaming that Russia should expel the North Caucasus republics from the federation and “declare independence” from Chechnya.
“Stop Feeding the Caucasus” has become a rallying cry for Russia’s political opposition. Although the Moscow protest movement that emerged in December 2011 is mostly liberal, it is also happy to attract as many anti-Chechen nationalists as it can.
Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader on trial for corruption charges that appear to be fabricated, is as famous for lashing out at Chechens as he is for his anti-corruption campaigns. Navalny despises Kadyrov, whom he accuses of ordering murders across Russia, and of theft and extortion from the Russian state. Kadyrov has denied these and other allegations.
Chechen-bashing works politically for Navalny because Putin cannot fight back. The Kremlin can mimic Navalny’s anti- corruption campaign, but it can’t start attacking Kadyrov. That would threaten the Pax Putina in the Caucasus. Navalny can therefore paint Putin as weak, accusing Russia’s president of paying billions of rubles in tribute to a Chechen warlord, so that Chechens won’t let off bombs in Moscow. “The Godfather of all Chechen bandits and thugs is not sitting in Grozny, but in the Kremlin,” Navalny has said.
Navalny appears to have much of the public on his side when it comes to Chechnya. According to a 2011 opinion poll by the independent Levada Center, 51 percent of Russians wouldn’t care if Chechnya was thrown out of Russia and 59 percent agree with the xenophobic slogan “Russia for Russians.” A further 56 percent say they worry that ethnic clashes might soon occur. And there is overwhelming public support to cut the handouts to Chechnya.
For Kadyrov, the end of subsidies from Moscow would be disastrous. About 90 percent of the Chechen government budget consists of transfers from Moscow, and a huge chunk of employment is dependent on the Grozny reconstruction boom that Moscow funds. If it stopped, Kadyrov would quickly have a revolt of the jobless on his hands and would risk being toppled.
The belief that Kadyrov would do whatever it takes to keep Putin in power breeds wild speculation in Moscow.
It was widely believed during the December 2011 opposition protests, for example, that “Putin’s Chechens” were camped out inside the unfinished Hotel Moscow, just off Red Square, and would be released to shoot ethnic Russian demonstrators should they march on the Kremlin. No Chechens emerged.
Putin can’t rule forever. Because Putin can’t solve the Kadyrov problem, it is likely to explode the moment his grip on power falters. Whether the result is an independent Chechnya, a weak leader in Moscow unable to control Kadyrov, or a third Chechen war, Putin has failed in his “historic mission” — to resolve the North Caucasus issue. Chechnya remains fertile territory for conflict.
Ben Judah is the author of “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love With Vladimir Putin,” to be published by Yale University Press in May 2013. The opinions expressed are his own.