For the past seven years, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has been perceived as exercising total control over his fiefdom, thanks to a handful of ruthlessly competent aides, to the extensive police and security network subordinate to him, and to seemingly limitless financial subsidies from the federal center courtesy of his mentor and idol, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group, titled Chechnya: The Inner Abroad, questions that perception, however. The executive summary acknowledges that Chechnya under Kadyrov has become "a virtually independent polity, with its own ideology, religious policy, security structures, economy and laws."
At the same time, it suggests that the apparent peace in Chechnya "is fragile, a result not only of highly personalised governance reliant on repression and arbitrariness that Moscow tolerates and covers up, but also economic inequality, poor social infrastructure, lack of genuine reconciliation and almost full impunity for abuses."
There are at least five factors that, singly or collectively, could over time weaken Kadyrov.
The first is the North Caucasus insurgency, some of whose fighters have reportedly transferred their allegiance from the Caucasus Emirate (IK) proclaimed in late 2007 by then-Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Doku Umarov to the terrorist grouping Islamic State (IS). The commander of the Chechen insurgency wing, Aslan Byutukayev (aka Amir Khamzat), was reported in mid-June to have sworn allegiance to IS head Abu-Bakar al-Baghdadi. IS formally acknowledged that oath of allegiance on June 21.
It further claimed to have received analogous professions of allegiance from the former Caucasus Emirate wings in Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Days later, an IS spokesman announced the creation of a North Caucasus subsidiary.
Whether the militants in Chechnya have in fact unanimously aligned with IS, and how many of those that did so have left Chechnya to fight in Syria, is not clear, however. Some Daghestani fighters still remain loyal to Magomed Suleymanov (aka Amir Abu-Usman Gimrinsky), the Daghestani who was chosen earlier this year to replace Umarov’s slain successor as Caucasus Emirate head, Aliaskhab Kebekov. The position of the Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachai insurgency wing is similarly unclear.
As recently as December, Chechen fighters staged a major attack on Grozny apparently on orders from Byutukayev, briefly occupying the central press and media building and a nearby school and killing 14 police and security personnel. Young men were still "heading for the forest" to join the insurgency two months later.
But by then, IS was apparently already perceived by at least some Chechens as either more attractive ideologically than IK or as a potentially more effective means of displacing Kadyrov. Kadyrov himself indirectly confirmed in early February a report that the black jihadi banner was painted on a wall in his home village of Tsentoroi, together with the words, in English, "Khosi-Yurt is support ISIS."
The transfer of allegiance between IK and IS works both ways, however. Earlier this month, Salakhuddin Shishani, the former head of Jaish al-Muharijeen wal-Ansar (JMA), together with a group of fighters from the North Caucasus, pledged allegiance to Suleymanov, and are calling themselves the Caucasus Emirate in Syria.
The second factor is widespread popular alienation and resentment, not only at the economic inequality and poor social infrastructure noted by the ICG, but at the concentration of political power in the hands of Kadyrov and his trusted cronies, the imposition of a bizarre synthesis of traditional Sunni Islam and selected elements of Chechen Sufism, and the arbitrary brutality of the Chechen security forces toward anyone whose loyalty to the Kadyrov regime is deemed even remotely questionable.
That resentment has surfaced twice in the past six months. In late February, three men apparently tried to blow up the dam of a reservoir southeast of Grozny.
And in late May, young men in the village of Zakan-Yurt, west of the capital, clashed with police who had assaulted three young women in head scarves.
The third factor is the disinclination of the Russian leadership, and of Putin personally, to be seen to condone unquestioningly Kadyrov's most egregious statements and decisions. Shortly after the militant attack on Grozny in December, Putin made clear his disapproval of Kadyrov's injunction to expel insurgents' relatives from Chechnya and torch their homes.
In late April, Russian Investigative Committee (SKR) Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin intervened to quash a criminal case launched by the SKR's Chechen subsidiary into the circumstances under which Djambulat Dadayev, a Chechen suspected of having committed a crime in Stavropol Krai, was pursued to Grozny and gunned down there by Stavropol police and personnel from the federal Interior Ministry's Temporary Operative Grouping of Organs and Sub-Units (VOGOiP) in Chechnya. Outraged at not having been informed in advance of the operation to apprehend Dadayev, Kadyrov issued orders to the Chechen security forces to "shoot to kill" in the event that police from elsewhere in Russia appeared in Chechnya without giving prior notification.
While such moves indicate that there are apparently still red lines that Kadyrov is not permitted to cross, the leeway permitted him and the extent to which Moscow is prepared to turn a blind eye to his most outrageous and provocative statements may well change, especially if the threat to southern Russia posed by IS is perceived to be growing and Kadyrov is regarded as a key component of the strategy to counter it. Federal Nationalities Minister Igor Barinov identified IS last week as one of the most serious problems Russia faces.
The fourth factor is the limited number of experienced, effective, and trusted officials on whom Kadyrov can rely to maintain "order" and run the economy. The death late last month of longtime parliament chairman Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov set in motion a reshuffle of Kadyrov's most trusted henchmen that highlights that dearth.
Presidential and government administration head Magomed Daudov was elected Abdurakhmanov's successor despite a lack of any relevant experience. Grozny Mayor Islam Kadyrov, 28, a distant cousin to Ramzan, took over from Daudov as administration head.
Islam Kadyrov served previously as an aide to Ramzan and as minister for property and land. Ramzan has described him as experienced, knowledgeable, determined, demanding both of himself and his subordinates, and capable of working well with other people.
Some observers, however, attribute Islam Kadyrov's appointment to the key post of administration head to Ramzan Kadyrov's desire to expand the influence wielded by members of his own family and/or to his valuing absolute personal loyalty above all other qualities. It was pointed out that young men of Islam Kadyrov's generation have only the haziest memories of the period prior to the 1994-96 war and have come to maturity pinning their hopes for peace and stability first on Ramzan's late father, Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov, and then on Ramzan himself, to whom they are consequently fiercely loyal.
Two further appointees combine loyalty with expertise and experience. Muslim Khuchiyev, 42, was named to replace Islam Kadyrov as acting Grozny mayor. Khuchiyev had previously served in that capacity from 2007-12, when he was dismissed for imputed serious violations of land legislation that never materialized into a criminal case and subsequently appointed economic and regional-development and trade minister. In that capacity, he focused specifically on seeking to attract international investors.
Abdula Magomadov, 52, Khuchiyev's predecessor as head of that mega-ministry from 2003, returns to that post, having served for the past three years as deputy prime minister. Magomadov is arguably one of the most qualified, competent, and experienced members of Kayrov's team, having begun his career in the Chechen government in 2001.
The fifth factor is the continuing impact on the Russian economy of Western sanctions, which have necessitated cuts in budget spending of up to 10 percent. Granted, the Chechen leadership is cushioned from the effects of such cuts by having at its disposal alternative financial sources in the form of the Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov Regional Charitable Fund. But if spending cuts result in wage arrears to budget-sector employees who are nonetheless required to continue making mandatory "voluntary" monthly contributions to that fund, public discontent is likely to become both more widespread and more vocal.
In addition, cutbacks on investment will negatively affect Kadyrov's stated plans to create 20,535 new jobs this year alone and to reduce unemployment by 2018 from the current (official) level of 15.3 percent to 5 percent.
Meanwhile, real-estate prices in Grozny fell by 10.9 percent during the second quarter of 2015, the steepest drop anywhere in Russia. That trend will hit not only those Chechens who hope to sell their homes and emigrate to escape the Kadyrov regime, but also senior officials close to him who have invested in property.
Whether and to what extent Kadyrov is aware of these potential threats, and how seriously he takes them, are not easy to say. He has, after all, invariably responded with indiscriminate brute force to any perceived challenge to his authority, and continues to do so. Young men whose appearance gives grounds to suspect Salafi sympathies, or who travel to neighboring Daghestan to attend Friday Prayers at mosques there, are routinely detained and roughed up.
The human rights watchdog Memorial estimates that at least 100 people were detained for questioning in the wake of the reservoir-dam bomb in February.
As for IS, in recent months Kadyrov has repeatedly downplayed its military capabilities, even after the reports that it has established a subsidiary in Chechnya. He nonetheless mobilized Interior Ministry special-purpose forces (spetsnaz) twice within 24 hours last week for special antiterrorism drills, citing the need for them to be prepared to repel attacks by terrorists operating individually or in small groups. (State Duma Defense and Security Committee Deputy Chairman Frants Klintsevich says that move was illegal, insofar as the spetsnaz are subordinate to the federal Interior Ministry Directorate and Kadyrov is not empowered to give them orders.)
Like the mass antiterrorism meeting convened in late December, which was attended by up to 10,000 members of the police and security forces, last week's exercises may well have been intended primarily to substantiate the perception in Moscow that Kadyrov is supremely capable of deflecting any threat to the North Caucasus, whether real or imaginary.