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Chechen Leader Takes On Three Powerful Adversaries, With Minimum Success

  • Aslan Doukaev

Ramzan Kadyrov at a Victory Day parade in Grozny in 2007

Ramzan Kadyrov at a Victory Day parade in Grozny in 2007

The fragmentary reports of two separate plots to assassinate Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov not only highlight the extent to which he is hated and feared. The spin placed on those reports by Kadyrov's press service is clearly intended as a warning to his enemies of the perils of suspected disloyalty. Meanwhile, his failure to neutralize several powerful rival agencies calls into question the extent of his control over the republic.

The three targets which the young and temperamental leader of Russia's Chechen Republic seems particularly fond of assailing (each for different reasons, of course) are the Islamic insurgency that continues to pose a grave security threat; Russia's state-owned oil company Rosneft, which has a monopoly on Chechnya's oil industry; and the Russian armed forces in Chechnya, which are digging in for the long haul and take little heed of Kadyrov's desire for total power and control.

Despite a spate of setbacks on the battlefield and the loss over the past three years of their most experienced commanders, the Chechen resistance has succeeded in regrouping and adopting a new and effective modus operandi in a changing environment.

Apparently because Russia's regular army was ill-equipped and ill-trained for counterinsurgency warfare, the Russian leadership about four years ago began to pursue the policy of "Chechenization," whereby pro-Moscow Chechen militias were co-opted to "neutralize" the resistance. Initially Kadyrov was -- and effectively still is -- in charge of one such militia formation, commonly known as "kadyrovtsy." The kadyrovtsy and various other paramilitary groups have been waging a brutal campaign against the resistance and civilians suspected of supporting it, arresting, torturing, and killing thousands. The fighters respond by launching coordinated attacks on pro-Moscow police and security forces and the homes of the "kadyrovtsy" and other collaborators.

In addition to the usual hit-and-run attacks on their native soil, the Chechen insurgents for a number of years now have been vigorously exporting both their ideas and military instructors to neighboring North Caucasus republics, where the Islamic militancy is spreading like wildfire. Increasingly frequent attacks on police and government officials in Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, as well as the ongoing insurgency in Chechnya give the lie to Kadyrov's repeated claims that the resistance has been neutralized.

His most recent insistence that the resistance now constitutes only "a small group of shaitans [devils] numbering 60 or 70 people" was disputed, much to the outrage of Kadyrov's increasingly vocal retinue, even by the Russian military. The commander of the Combined Forces in the North Caucasus, Major General Nikolai Sivak, told the newspaper "Krasnaya zvezda" in May that the resistance fighters have not stopped their "activities" and that "there is still an outflow of young people into the militants' ranks." The Chechen authorities appeared to be particularly upset by Sivak's assertion that "the local population either support the militant groups or remain neutral."

Attacking Rosneft

A second punching bag is the oil company Rosneft, which is reportedly connected to powerful interest groups in or close to the Kremlin. Counting the money in Rosneft's vast pockets is a favorite pastime of Chechen officials. Kadyrov claimed last year that the company's annual revenues from the sale of Chechen oil amount to 20 billion rubles ($777 million), and he demanded that Rosneft reinvest that money in Chechnya's fragile economy. The Chechen government, which owns 49 percent of GrozNefteGaz, Rosneft's subsidiary in Chechnya, receives less than 5 percent of the revenues, according to Kadyrov.

Although severely critical of Rosneft's greed and insensitivity, Kadyrov has remained curiously silent on the history of its involvement in Chechnya. It was Kadyrov's father, Akhmed-hadji, who first granted Rosneft permission to extract Chechen oil under the current terms when then-Russian President Vladimir Putin named him Chechen republic head in 2000. Rosneft revealed at the time that it viewed Akhmed Kadyrov as a possible candidate for the position of GrozNefteGaz CEO, but that appointment never materialized.

Kadyrov Senior apparently came to regret his decision later on. After repeatedly lambasting Rosneft, he declared in March 2004 his intention of establishing a new and independent oil company in the republic. Two months later, he died in a huge bomb explosion at a Grozny stadium, the circumstances of which remain unclear.

Moscow's Security Blanket?

Third, Kadyrov has railed time and again against the Russian troops stationed in Chechnya, which number at least 38,000 and possibly up to 70,000 servicemen. He argues both that their numbers should be drastically cut, and that they should vacate territory and facilities that he claims they currently occupy illegally. Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry troops and Federal Security Service (FSB) units are currently in possession of 15 times the amount of land they rented in the final years of Soviet rule, according to Kadyrov's staff. Whereas in 1992, Russian Defense Ministry units had the use of 3,754 hectares (37.54 square kilometers), the area held by them these days officially is more than 31,000 hectares (310 square kilometers), and yet more is occupied illegally.

Earlier this year, the Chechen government, with Kadyrov's tacit approval, asked an Arbitration Court to revoke the Russian Defense Ministry's right to register property and use land in Chechnya's southernmost Vedeno and Shatoi raions, where several firing ranges and a tank training area are located. Yet it was none other than Ramzan Kadyrov, then Chechen Republic prime minister, who on December 29, 2006, signed off on that agreement.

It is hard to fathom why Kadyrov changed his mind after he was appointed Chechen Republic head last year. Or why, for that matter, he remained silent for so many years while the army he criticizes today unleashed a reign of terror on his own people, its tanks and artillery leveled cities and towns, and its warplanes filled the Chechen sky.

There is certainly a deeper significance to Kadyrov's verbal attacks on the Russian troop contingent in Chechnya. Given that for the past few years it has been the pro-Moscow Chechen paramilitary forces that have borne the brunt of the fighting, with Russian troops merely providing logistical support, there is a certain superficial logic to the argument that the Russian military presence is excessive.

But some in the Kremlin may well consider that military presence expedient for a second, no less compelling reason: to keep an eye on Kadyrov and his thousands of henchmen. The unpredictable, volatile and power-hungry Chechen leader, himself a former resistance fighter, is deeply distrusted by both Russia's military and politicians, and many in Moscow believe he is more of a liability than an asset. The reports of the last three days of plans to assassinate him raise the question: is his grip on power eroding? And if so, how long will his position remain secure?

Aslan Doukaev is the director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service