Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has hailed the April 16 announcement of the end of the 10-year counterterrorism operation in Chechnya as an acknowledgment that Islamic radicalism has been defeated and as heralding a badly needed economic upswing in the republic.
By contrast, many commentators in Moscow and abroad have construed it as the latest in a long series of concessions by Moscow, one that has further augmented Kadyrov's already considerable power and removed the last constraints on his imputed plan to transform Chechnya into a de facto independent state within the Russian Federation.
Kadyrov's hyperbole is misplaced insofar as the Islamic resistance still moves freely throughout Chechnya's mountainous southern regions, staging ambushes and hit-and-run attacks against the various police and paramilitary formations loyal to Kadyrov. And foreign investors are unlikely to start flocking to Chechnya in the midst of an ongoing global recession.
Inherited Laws, Parties
True, Kadyrov wields personal power, and enjoys a degree of impunity vis-a-vis Moscow, incomparably greater than that of any other federation subject head. That relationship is rooted in an unwritten agreement whereby Kadyrov's protector, Vladimir Putin, granted him carte blanche to use whatever means he considered expedient to break the back of the resistance and secure the absolute submission of the civilian population in return for Kadyrov's unswerving loyalty to Moscow.
But Chechnya today still remains a long way from qualifying as a viable state within a state on at least two key counts.
First, an independent state needs its own constitution and laws, even if these may be closely modeled on those of another state, and its own political parties. Chechnya, however, has been meticulous in bringing its laws and constitution into conformity with those of the Russian Federation. The only political parties registered in Chechnya are the regional branches of all-Russian parties. Elections, both national and local, have been rigged to demonstrate overwhelming support for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, which holds 37 of the 41 seats in the republic's parliament.
In addition, Chechnya depends on subsidies from the federal center for up to 90 percent of its annual budget. Moreover, Moscow has provided huge additional sums for postconflict reconstruction and restitution payments for families whose homes and properties were destroyed during the fighting. It is that steady intravenous drip of money from Moscow that keeps the republic afloat.
And the Russian leadership insists on retaining a controlling stake in the one natural resource that could render Chechnya even partially economically self-sufficient. Its oil reserves are controlled by a joint venture in which Grozneftegaz, a subsidiary of the state-owned Rosneft, owns a 51 percent stake. Rosneft then exports and refines Chechen oil and transfers a share of the profits to Grozny. All efforts by Kadyrov, and by his late father before him, to wrest total control and to have an oil refinery built in Chechnya to obviate the need to export crude for refining have been resolutely rebuffed by Moscow.
Indeed, it is doubtful whether Chechnya could survive as a quasi-independent state just on the profits from exporting oil. Annual oil production is currently estimated at less than 2 million tons. Kadyrov himself in a recent interview with "Rossiiskaya gazeta" affirmed that he does not need sovereignty as "one day the oil will run out, and what would I do then as an independent state?"
Chechnya under Kadyrov thus presents a curious hybrid: a polity in which one man wields virtual absolute power, by virtue both of the leeway granted him by his masters in Moscow and the military units at his disposal that ruthlessly target perceived disaffected elements both within Chechnya and abroad. At the same time, Chechnya is, and will remain, overwhelmingly dependent on subsidies from Moscow to sustain the economic and political status quo (how much do the salaries of Kadyrov's private armed forces alone cost every month?).
Trumpeting the end of the counterterrorism operation does little to alter that equation. And Moscow will still retain some leverage over Kadyrov. Although some Russian forces will be withdrawn from Chechnya, up to 30,000 will remain -- outnumbering the various paramilitary, police, and security units loyal to Kadyrov. And despite having made a seemingly arbitrary decision to call an end to the counterterrorism operation, the Kremlin could equally arbitrarily launch a new one, either throughout Chechnya or -- as it does on a regular basis in Daghestan and Ingushetia -- in a particular village or region, just to remind Kadyrov which side his bread is buttered on.