Making outrageous and palpably untrue assertions has long been Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's stock-in-trade, and because he is arguably one of the most powerful men in Russia, few people have dared to publicly take issue with him for fear of ending up "disappeared" (meaning abducted in broad daylight by unidentified gunmen, after which all trace of them is lost) or dead.
That impunity is now in the balance, however, in light of Kadyrov's statement last week in which he accused unnamed members of Russia's extraparliamentary opposition of trying at the behest of their alleged paymasters in Western intelligence services to use the current unfavorable economic situation to undermine domestic stability in Russia.
Kadyrov declared that such persons "should be treated as enemies of the people, as traitors." Those epithets from the darkest years of the Stalinist terror are irrevocably associated in the minds of the older generation of Russians with show trials, executions, and draconian prison camp sentences. Kadyrov said such people should be brought to trial for their "subversive activity."
That statement elicited negative reactions across the Russian Federation. Human rights ombudsman Ella Pamfilova was quoted as commenting that such statements are a disservice to President Vladimir Putin and reflect badly on the country as a whole.
Maksim Reznik, a member of St. Petersburg's parliament, has addressed a formal request to the federal Prosecutor-General's Office to pronounce on whether Kadyrov's statement contains "a public call for extremist activity."
Reznik noted that, in 1995, Russia's Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional Article 64 of the Soviet-era Criminal Code under which people were sentenced as "enemies of the people." He further called for access to the Chechen government website that posted the summary of Kadyrov's address to be restricted.
Russian State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin described the altercation between Kadyrov and his critics as "unpleasant," stressing that the Duma should set an example for dialogue between various political forces and that he personally "has always stood for open and respectful political dialogue."
Konstantin Senchenko, a businessman and member of the Krasnoyarsk legislature, responded with an ad hominem attack in which he accused Kadyrov of having brought shame on Russia and discrediting the titles of academician and Hero of Russia.
Kadyrov publicly construed Senchenko's comment in a telephone conversation that he should perhaps not have resorted to such language as an apology.
Meanwhile, the informal Congress of the Intelligentsia formed in March 2014 to protest Russia's annexation of Crimea has launched a petition calling for Kadyrov to resign immediately. Signatories include human rights campaigners Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Svetlana Gannushkina, Committee Against Torture head Igor Kalyapin, and Lev Ponomaryov.
Chechnya's human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev responded that, insofar as Kadyrov was elected in an open ballot, only the Chechen people have the right to demand his removal as republic head.
Kadyrov, for his part, retaliated by implying, in an article published in Izvestia, that the initiators of the petition are the victims of "mass psychosis" and are in need of psychiatric treatment.
Kadyrov further advocated that the prosecutor's office should investigate statements by those officials who speak out in support of, or call for dialogue with, the "jackals" who "call for violence" and "dream of the destruction of our state."
The presidential Human Rights Council, too, is toying with the possibility of asking Putin to remove Kadyrov, according to its deputy chairman Yevgeny Bobrov. Bobrov said Kadyrov's statements, and similar pronouncements by his subordinates, including parliament speaker Magomed Daudov, will be subjected to linguistic analysis to determine whether they are extremist and/or unconstitutional.
At the same time, Bobrov acknowledged that "reinforced concrete evidence" would be needed to substantiate any formal demand for Kadyrov's dismissal. Any such evaluations would risk being rejected out of hand as subjective.
There has been no formal comment to date from the Kremlin on the controversy, although the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta on January 18 quoted an unnamed "source close to the presidential administration" as saying that Kadyrov, "as the head of a federation subject, should be more responsible in his choice of words."
Whether President Putin will feel constrained to utter an anodyne rebuke is questionable, especially if the Human Rights Council decides against asking Putin to dismiss Kadyrov.
True, on one previous occasion Putin was forced to acknowledge that Kadyrov had overstepped the mark. Asked by journalist Kseniya Sobchak from the TV station Dozhd during his annual press conference in December 2014 to comment on whether Kadyrov's orders to torch the homes of the families of the young fighters who had attacked Grozny two weeks earlier were unconstitutional, Putin stressed: "In Russia, everyone must abide by the laws of the country. No one considered guilty until he has been sentenced by a court." At the same time, Putin said that Kadyrov's "emotional" outburst was understandable in light of the casualties the Chechen police incurred during the fighting.
Since then, however, Kadyrov has scored at least one notable victory, pushing through the Russian parliament a new law, which he has described as"a triumph of justice," barring Russian courts from designating passages from Holy Scripture extremist.
The rationale for that law was a ruling handed down in August 2015 by a court in Yuzhno-Sakahlinsk in Russia's Far East, and which Kadyrov promptly appealed, designating two ayats from the Koran as "extremist."
Kadyrov may also have obstructed the investigation into the February 2015 assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.
Every such success in redefining what in today's Russia is politically possible only serves to strengthen Kadyrov's conviction that he is above and beyond reproach, and thus to impel him to utter ever more outrageous and offensive denunciations of anyone who incurs his disapproval. He boasted on January 18 in an Instagram post that those oppositionists who were the target of his criticism "will be unable to do anything…against me personally."
At the end of the day, the Kadyrov phenomenon is one of Putin's making, and only he can decide how to handle it.
Kadyrov's second term in office expires in two months' time, but the chances he will not be reelected for a third term are minimal. Apart from his role as commander of what amounts to Putin's private army, he serves a further valuable purpose. As Konstantin Kalachov of the Politic Experts' Group told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, like Liberal Democratic Party of Russia Chairman Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the 1990s, Kadyrov is the mouthpiece for a specific faction within the Russian elite, and in that capacity he "says things that everyone thinks, but no one can put into words" because they are not politically correct.