We all need some clarity sometimes, and Ramzan Kadyrov, in his own capricious, egotistical and murderous way did offer a little. Like a drop of dye poured into water, he helped shown the currents and eddies swirling in the otherwise clear fluid. By virtue of being the outsider, the outlier, the man who failed to observe or maybe even really see the rules of the game, he made those rules more evident.
Of course, it may well be too soon to be using the past tense. He has said that it is time for him to step down but as I have said elsewhere, this might just be a crude political blackmail, an invitation for the Chechen people or the Kremlin to beg him to reconsider. But whether he stays or goes, he has already helped us see how things work in Russia. (And often how they don’t.)
The Deinstitutionalized Power Vertical
It was striking that when Kadyrov made his momentous announcement, it was framed not as giving the Chechen people the chance to select a new leader, so much as an invitation for the powers that be to pick a new proconsul, while making a pitch for them to choose from the existing team of his cronies and courtiers. Of course, the government does need to pick an interim figure in the run up to the September elections, but this was not his point. Of course, we all know that Russian elections these days are essentially exercises in legitimating the nomenklatura choice, but there is usually at least a pretense, some attempt to hide the stark truth behind some pseudo-politics. But Kadyrov, not caring or probably not realizing this particular subtlety, was happy to tell it like it is.
In the process, he exposes the essential abolition of institutional politics in Russia. Russia’s political system is sometimes called ‘hyperpresidential’ for obvious as on given the absence of meaningful checks and balances and the consolidation of practical power in one pair of hands. However, Putin’s power is not because he is the president; he is the president because he has power. The ‘castling’ when he let Medvedev keep his chair warm for him, while temporarily taking day-to-day prerogatives and symbolic authority to the White House while he was slumming it as prime minister, then returning them to the Kremlin in his back pocket when he returned to the presidency.
Putin has, in this respect, continued Yeltsin’s work of ripping the guts and sinews out of any attempt to institutionalize power in Russia because he understands that institutions are constraints. Of course, as he is coming to discover, they are also supports, but too late for him to worry about that. There is politics is Russia, from factional maneuvers to the genuine need sometimes to recognize and cater to public opinion, and local politics ought not to be discounted, but the only real structure in which it plays out at a national level is outside the institutional structure, it is the court of the tsar.
The Etiquette of Violence and Terror
“No one, but no one, dies in the Palace, without a command from the Emperor.” There is, to be sure, a limit to how the garishly camp movie Flash Gordon can be considered a metaphor for modern Russia. (Although Sergei Ivanov would make a very creditable General Klytus. I’ll stop now.) However, one of the primary attributes of any state is its monopoly over the legitimate use of violence within its borders. In Russia, there are two additional aspects. On the one hand, part of Putin’s legitimating narrative is that he brought order and safety back to the streets after the anarchic ‘wild 90s.’ On the other, the elite know that in return for their loyalty, while their opportunities for enrichment may be controlled, their lives at least are safe.
By ordering or retrospectively condoning Boris Nemtsov’s murder – and there can be little doubt one or the other is true – Kadyrov managed to break the implicit rules in a number of ways that quickly became visible. First of all, he embarrassed Putin, not least by committing the murder literally by the Kremlin. Secondly, he failed to respect the etiquette of murder. Just as within the Russian underworld, foreigners are generally considered untouchable (those who have been killed, such as Paul Klebnikov in 2004, had their immunity lifted by a gathering of gangster chieftains), so too in the upperworld, the ‘understanding’ is that journalists, business rivals and lower-level activists are fair game, but internationally-known figures, especially those who were at least once within the elite, have to be treated with much greater circumspection. By not knowing or not caring, Kadyrov shocked not just liberals but also jaded and cynical members of the elite, who in the first days after Nemtsov’s death did not know if this presaged a revision of the unspoken laws.
By stirring up official Moscow – angering the security agencies, frightening members of the elite, embarrassing Putin yet leaving him stuck for options given that at the time he does not seem to have wanted or been able to sack him – Kadyrov helped remind us of the real etiquette of violence in today’s Russia.
It’s All About The Rubles
For what did Kadyrov stand? His words were, of course, always about his loyalty to Putin, his commitment to the Chechen people, his Moslem piety. Yet at the same time he lives a playboy lifestyle, runs a brutally exploitative despotism, and has periodically not only been a thorn in Putin’s side but facilitated and enjoyed the industrial-scale embezzlement of the massive federal subsidies to Chechnya. How can one be loyal to someone from whom you steal, especially knowing that every ruble you spend on a car or a pet tiger is a ruble not available for some more urgent state priority?
Tellingly, now that the federal budget is in crisis, and Crimea has usurped Chechnya’s place at the top of the budget pecking order, Kadyrov has been pressing Moscow for assurances that his republic won’t have to share in the pain the other regions are experiencing – which of course would only drain the regional budget more and cause even more pain to the rest.
Kadyrov’s Chechnya is essentially a caricature of the Russian system as a whole but, like any good caricature, the resemblance is brutally visible. Not just a realm dominated by a single figure who rules through personal authority and relationships more than formal structures, but one in which his principal means of elite control is the distribution of largesse. This is a simple machine, an ATM in which one man has the card.
So maybe Kadyrov is on his way out – perhaps we should have paid more attention when he said he might want to join the army – or perhaps he is not. Either way, in his checkered and gory time in office, he as nonetheless done observers a great service in illustrating through his actions many of the particular pathologies of late Putinism.