For Chechnya’s president Ramzan Kadyrov, governance has always been something of a performance art. However, the role he chooses to play has changed over time, and is increasingly one of an independent and willful monarch, unwilling to swallow any challenges to his personal authority over Chechnya. How does he get away with it? Who is deterred and discomfited by his macho theatricals? The answer seems to be Vladimir Putin.
Kadyrov’s claims of slavish loyalty to the president, after all, are looking more and more threadbare. Whether or not be was behind the Nemtsov killing or simply retrospectively opted to shield the prime suspect, he certainly is not willing to cooperate with Moscow’s investigation. More recently, he even told his Kadyrovtsy, the Chechen security forces – they may carry Ministry of Internal Affairs IDs, but no one doubts where their loyalties lie – that if federal agents try to operate in Chechnya without his say-so, they “shoot to kill.” Remind me, who won the war for Chechen independence?
So why does Moscow continue to laminate his breast in medals and, perhaps more to the point, continue to bankroll his corrupt and authoritarian semi-Islamist regime? Wave a Ukrainian flag in Moscow, and the police will be on top of you in no time. Shelter suspected murderers, and get a fat check and a decoration.
Contrary to some suggestions, Kadyrov has no real constituency in Moscow. The security agencies all resent the way he has essentially taken over or marginalized their local branches. The bean counters resent the subsidies flowing south at a time of stringency. And the elite as a whole regard him with at best wary contempt: he may have been useful, and he is certainly dangerous, but this thuggish warlord is not one of them. Even if erstwhile political dramaturge-in-chief Vyacheslav Surkov is now in Kadyrov’s entourage, as some suggest, that just reflects that he is still out of favor with the Kremlin. Given the opportunity to return to the director’s chair in Moscow, I hardly see Surkov turning it down for the chance to hang with Ramzan.
There are also the concerns that taking him down might unleash chaos in Chechnya again, not least at the hands of the 20,000 or so Kadyrovtsy. To be sure, Kadyrov has packed the Chechen administration and security apparatus with his cronies, but we should not assume that their red-blooded affirmations of loyalty are more meaningful than the lachrymose end-of-the-evening, alcohol-fueled pledges of eternal friendship at a Russian banquet. Taking Kadyrov down is certainly possible. Were he arrested in Moscow and a quick interim regime put in place in Grozny, with guarantees that the rest of the Chechen elite would be secure on the one hand, troop mobilizations on the border on the other, it might well be much less tumultuous than feared. After all, these are corrupt and cynical opportunists, and as for the Kadyrovtsy, many are ex-guerrillas. In other words they have already changed sides once and done well enough out of it.
All that said, there would be some risk of instability in Chechnya, at present arguably the most peaceful of the North Caucasus republics, even if it is the peace of terror and exhaustion. Still, one thing the Kremlin does fear is not looking in charge, and so long as Kadyrov gets away with, quite literally, murder, then this represents a lasting challenge to the power vertical. Is dealing with this growing challenge not worth a risk?
The fact that nothing has been done speaks to an essential timidity within Putin. This might sound perverse given his willingness to wage war in Ukraine and his own brand of bare-chested macho antics. However, the annexation of Crimea and then intervention in Ukraine, like the 2008 Georgian war, were anticipated to be quick and easy operations, bullying a smaller, divided neighbor with shock and awe and barefaced cheek, and delivering a prompt reaffirmation of Russian regional hegemony.
As for the Putin shows, these are always prepared and choreographed with the greatest care, to deliver the requisite PR footage while keeping the principal safe and sound. Putin did not serve in the military. In the KGB, he was not some James Bond in a fur hat sneaking across borders and taking on the Motherland’s enemies hand-to-hand but an agent handler safely in East Germany. Yes, he is a martial artist, but judo is hardly bare-knuckle boxing or UFC.
This helps explain part of the apparent fascination Ramzan has for Vova. Behind his bluster, and his own carefully cultivated Instagram persona, Kadyrov is a genuine bruiser. He fought in and commanded field units in battle. He boxes and according to unconfirmed but hardly implausible accounts also sometimes takes a hand in the “physical interrogation” – beating and torture – of suspects and rivals. I cannot help but wonder if even when Kadyrov’s bravado actually directly disrespects him, such as turning up to the Kremlin in a tracksuit, Putin responds to and seeks to approval of this hands-on thug.
But man-crush issues aside, Putin is also strikingly cautious in his dealings with the elite. The relative handful of cases where he has targeted senior figures within it have been precisely that, rare. Furthermore, they tend to be when he has no option and often mean no more than temporary disgrace. We focus on the Khodorkovsky case, of course, but the truth is that this was the outlier. Far more normal would be Anatoly Serdyukov, the defense minister forced to resign amidst claims of corruption (but probably more because his head was demoted by father-in-law Viktor Zubkov after a too-public affair) then quietly pardoned and given a sinecure at technology corporation Rostec. Or businessman Vladimir Yevtushenkov, arrested and accused of money laundering, but then released and rehabilitated once the Bashneft oil firm had been wrested from his grasp.
So at the moment, Kadyrov seems to have absolute impunity. His track record suggests that he will only get more confident, more brash, more challenging. Eventually, the Kremlin may be forced to act, but the longer it waits, the harder it may be nearly to engineer regime change in Chechnya, and the weaker the Kremlin looks in its dealings with local elites.