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Ramzan Kadyrov's Evolving Political Credo

  • Liz Fuller

Ramzan Kadyrov at an exhibition devoted to his father in Grozny in early July

Ramzan Kadyrov at an exhibition devoted to his father in Grozny in early July

Ramzan Kadyrov's career trajectory, from the poorly educated son of a Muslim cleric to one of the most powerful men in Russia, epitomizes Mao Tse-Tung's classic pronouncement that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." But Kadyrov's recent statements reflect a desire for a redefinition of the powers of federation subject heads that would strengthen his position even further.

When Kadyrov was first promoted to the post of Chechen prime minister in March 2006, educated Chechens ridiculed his inability to express himself coherently in either his native Chechen or in Russian, which he speaks with a marked Chechen accent.

There has been little if any improvement in his elocution over the past three years, a failing that only serves to highlight the contrast between his spontaneous verbal pronouncements (earthy and peppered with folk wisdom) and the more polished and sophisticated views expressed in his published interviews, which some observers believe are heavily edited by his advisers.

There are, moreover, discrepancies and inconsistencies between Kadyrov's responses over the past several years to very similar questions.

Meanwhile, as his iron grip on Chechnya has intensified, his political views on certain issues have become increasingly radical.

Relations With Moscow

In many respects, however, the vision Kadyrov outlines of the kind of polity he wants Chechnya to become, its relations with the federal center, and his own role as republic head is consistent. He defines Chechnya as "a federal subject like any other" and as "an integral part of Russia," not as a "state within a state," and says he sees "no sense in a division of powers between the republic and the federal center."

Kadyrov has publicly rejected the prospect of Chechnya becoming a sovereign state, on the grounds that it is too small to survive as such given the high birthrate and the lack of any natural resources except oil, which will run out one day, "and then what shall I [sic] do as a separate state?"

At the same time, he clearly perceives the relationship between Chechnya and Moscow as entitling Chechnya to unlimited subsidies from the federal budget -- plus the revenues from the oil extracted on its territory -- with a minimum of reciprocal responsibilities.

Chechnya should, Kadyrov has argued repeatedly, again become a multiethnic and multiconfessional republic. To that end, he has vowed to try to persuade all ethnic groups -- not just Chechens, but Russians, Kumyks and others who fled during the fighting of 1994-96 and 1999-2000 -- to return.

At the same time, Kadyrov sees Chechnya as the preferred, if not the sole, homeland of the Chechen people, arguing that if the tens of thousands of Chechens currently living in Europe do not return to Chechnya, they and their children risk assimilation and loss of their national identity over the next couple of decades. Whereas in October 2007 Kadyrov told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" that the Chechen authorities were not in a position to finance the return to Chechnya of Chechens living elsewhere in Russia and to provide them with housing and jobs, the same newspaper quoted him on February 10, 2009 as saying he hopes to establish a fund to provide financial support for Chechens who wish to return from Europe.

In the same October 2007 interview, Kadyrov affirmed that Chechnya has advanced from postconflict reconstruction to intensive economic development. He said Chechnya should become "the most developed region of the Caucasus" but admitted that this requires building a new, technology-focused economy. The obstacles to doing so are the lack of a trained work force (registered employment is around 50 percent, the real figure is closer to 74 percent) and general reluctance to invest in a region perceived as still unstable and plagued by official corruption.

Self-Styled Strongman

Kadyrov defines his own role as guarantor of the Chechen Constitution, and acknowledges his duty to abide by Russian law and to serve his people and "the people of Russia." But he has also implicitly questioned (in an interview with the news agency Regnum in January 2009) the expediency of the current relationship between the federal government and the leaderships of the federation subjects, arguing that the powers of the republic head vis-a-vis his subordinates should be enhanced.

In that interview, he explained that "thanks to the system of 'divide and rule,' we ourselves create opposition to the leader of the region. Take my functions, for example. The president confirms me, but at the same time he appoints the heads of a whole string of Chechen Republic structures. We and they have the same status. The one thing that distinguishes me is that I am the guarantor of the constitution. But how can I ask them to work if I am not authorized to do so? If I were not Ramzan Kadyrov, then no one would have restored order here. I know this system from the inside -- I have the authority my father bequeathed to me and everyone here knows that if he does not serve the people he will not continue to live here."

That uncompromising attitude to his subordinates also extends to what passes in Chechnya for the political opposition, as represented by the regional affiliates of various small Russian opposition parties. Kadyrov told Regnum that "the term opposition is not acceptable to me -- if someone wants to serve his people, all doors are open to him" and that "I didn't meet with the opposition in order to conduct a dialogue between equals."

In fact, consumed as he is with an obsessive need to exercise absolute power, Kadyrov cannot tolerate any perceived challenge to his authority, however insignificant or geographically remote. He has pressured almost all key figures in the government of Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) President Aslan Maskhadov, with the notable exception of current ChRI leader Akhmed Zakayev, to return to Chechnya on his terms.

Zakayev, for his part, continues to respond to repeated predictions by Kadyrov of his imminent return to Grozny by saying that he has no intention at present of doing so. Indeed, one reason why Kadyrov is now seeking actively to encourage Chechens in Europe to return home may be that while still abroad they are beyond his control. (He cannot send hit-men to kill all of them the way he did former resistance fighter Umar Israilov in Vienna in January 2009.)

The War On 'Wahhabism'

There is a curious disconnect between Kadyrov's attitude to "wahhabism" as an ideology and to the young militants who take up arms in its name. In 2007, he argued that wahhabism can and should be successfully countered by promoting a sense of national self-identification. To that end, he has promulgated a brand of ethno-territorial nationalism based largely on popular Islam but that also selectively borrows, and in some cases grotesquely distorts, the symbols and rituals of Chechen sufism while ignoring its essence. More recently, however, he has blamed the continued appeal of "wahhabism" on the inability of the Chechen clergy to demonstrate its flaws.

Kadyrov's comments on the magnitude of the threat posed by the Islamic resistance are demonstrably at odds with the situation on the ground. Over the past two-three years, he has consistently estimated the strength of the resistance at no more than a few dozen "bandits," and confidently predicted that they will be rounded up or killed within a matter of months, predictions that have proven to be utopian.

For example, on June 17, Kadyrov ordered police to wipe out all resistance fighters in both Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia within two weeks. Then on June 27, he told Rossiya television that after talks with the Russian Interior Ministry he had issued orders to wipe out all remaining resistance leaders on Chechen soil within one month.

Neither deadline has been met. Moreover, Kadyrov has been forced to admit publicly that young men (and some women) continue to head for the forests to join the resistance ranks. After appeals to those young fighters to surrender went unheeded, he warned that they risk being mercilessly hunted down and killed.

Kadyrov has also condoned, if not explicitly ordered, reprisals against the families of those young fighters who violate Russian law. Those punitive measures range from withholding pensions and child benefits to torching the families' homes.

Asked on August 7 by a "Gazeta" journalist whether that approach does not in fact constitute a violation of Russian law, Kadyrov responded angrily that he is acting to prevent others from violating Russian law. In other words, he appears either to believe that the end justifies the means or to consider himself above the law. Indeed, on at least one occasion, he has implied that Chechen tradition (or his interpretation of it) takes precedence over Russian law: He has declared that the Chechen authorities will conduct their own investigation into the July 15 abduction and murder of human rights activist Natalya Estemirova.

Reinterpreting Recent History

Many aspects of Kadyrov's interpretation of the events of the past 15-20 years in Chechnya are open to question. He has emphatically denied (in an April 2009 interview with "Rossiiskaya gazeta") ever having fought on the side of the resistance during the 1994-96 war. At the same time, he has admitted having as a boy regarded ChRI President Djokhar Dudayev as "a national hero."

In a statement in December 2006 to mark the 12th anniversary of the Russian attack on Chechnya, Kadyrov blamed the onset of the war on "the shortsighted and irresponsible policies of the political leadership of both Russia and Chechnya at that time." But he now argues that both the 1994-96 war and that of 1999- 2000 were the result of a conspiracy by "international terrorism" to weaken and dismember the Russian Federation, and that Chechnya heroically "saved Russia" by taking on itself the brunt of those attacks.

That simplistic interpretation ignores the concerted efforts undertaken by the Russian leadership in 1994 to undermine Dudayev, and the unanswered questions surrounding the unimpeded incursions into Daghestan in August 1999 by the radical Islamist wing of the Chechen leadership. The Russian leadership adduced those attacks as justification for launching a new war in Chechnya one month later.

As for the political situation within Russia as a whole, Kadyrov deplored in his January 2009 interview with Regnum what he termed general moral degradation and an erosion of patriotism that, he claimed, together pose a potential threat to national security. He argued that "if someone does not love his people, his religion, his homeland, he will never serve properly in the armed forces...a strong state needs strong soldiers."

Kadyrov went on to warn of the threat posed by Russian nationalism, affirming that "there should be no nationalists in Russia, which is a multi-national state. If I were leader of the country, I would propose a draft law to the State Duma that would designate nationalists terrorists."