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Moscow's Tactics In Chechnya Draw On Stalinist Legacy

Ramzan Kadyrov's image is omnipresent in Chechnya.
Ramzan Kadyrov's image is omnipresent in Chechnya.
Josef Stalin is dead, but there are some places where you would be forgiven for doubting it. Consider, for example, Chechnya, one of Russia's most unstable republics.

The press releases which flood out from the spin center of Ramzan Kadyrov, the region's Moscow-backed strongman, are so steeped in Bolshevik hyperbole that at times, halfway through some particularly egregious passage, you almost expect the mustachioed specter of Stalin to appear and sternly wag its finger at you.

Then again, the Soviet dictator, were he to come back from whichever circle of hell he is in now, would have a hard time competing for the limelight with Chechnya's young and adulation-hungry leader.

Since he became the de facto leader of Chechnya five years ago, Kadyrov has been busily promoting his own cult of personality, and, unlike some Hollywood stars, he never worries that the limelight could damage his complexion. Kadyrov's portraits, with abundant facial hair, look at you from apartment blocks, office walls, and car windshields. Stalinist in form, the essence of his personality cult consists of a volatile mixture of oriental despotism and a thuggish need for recognition.

Those who have shaped Russia's Chechnya policy over the past decade seem to have closely studied Stalin's methodology in responding to perceived challenges to his regime. It is as if somebody -- haunted, perhaps, by the humiliating setbacks Russia experienced in its 1994-1996 war in Chechnya -- had a eureka moment: "Why not sort out Chechnya the way Comrade Stalin sorted out Western Ukraine, or the Baltic states, or even, in the 1940s, Chechnya itself?"

The legacy of Joseph Stalin, who, incidentally, last year came within a whisker of being voted the greatest Russian of all time by Russian TV viewers, permeates the counter-insurgency strategy employed by the Russian forces in the second Chechen war that began in 1999. That strategy -- modified to suit the context and realities of the day -- combines a coordinated political and military response with nonconventional tactics that include propaganda, information warfare, economic action, internments, mop-up operations, "counter-hostage-taking," and, crucially, co-opting local groups and clans.

Putin’s Gamble

In July 2000, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin named Akhmed-Hajji Kadyrov, the former mufti of the separatist Chechen Republic Ichkeria and the father of Ramzan, to head the territory's temporary administration, an appointment Putin may since have come to regret. Kadyrov Senior, who became notorious in the mid-1990s for his virulent anti-Russian statements, actively collaborated with the occupying Russian forces, but at the same time tried to wrest control of Chechnya, especially its oil and other natural resources, from various Russian agencies.

Within less than four years, Akhmed-Hajji Kadyrov managed to consolidate his hold on Chechnya by installing loyal followers in every position where allegiance was doubtful. And when he was killed in a bomb explosion in May 2004, Putin had no choice but to throw his weight behind Ramzan, then head of his father's vast security service.

With hindsight, elevating a painfully undereducated young man of 28 to a top post in one of Russia's most unstable region must have been a difficult decision. But it was one that Putin, who by that time may have discovered that he had backed himself into a corner over Chechnya, was simply forced to make. It was a Faustian bargain that required Kadyrov and his private militia to contribute to the Russian war effort in return for near-unlimited power and astronomical subsidies from the federal government.

However, a deal that ensured Kadyrov's political future at the cost of many innocent (and some not so innocent) lives was bound to have unforeseen ramifications. These are now coming back to haunt Putin.

At the end of last month, a small squad of hit men shot and killed Sulim Yamadayev, a former loyalist to Akhmed-Hajji Kadyrov, in a parking lot outside his luxury apartment in Dubai. Yamadayev was for several years the commander of an elite army unit that hunted down Chechen insurgents for the Kremlin, but he was dismissed from active duty last August following a protracted and bitter rivalry with Ramzan Kadyrov.

On April 5, the Dubai police identified Adam Delimkhanov, a Russian State Duma deputy and close relative of Kadyrov, who previously occupied a senior post in the Chechen government, as the person who masterminded the murder. Delimkhanov, backed by Kadyrov, denied any involvement. Neither man, however, displayed any visible sign of regret at the death of their former comrade-in-arms.

Other enemies of Kadyrov have also been murdered in recent months in several capital cities. These crimes leave one wondering if Chechnya today is not a replay of the Soviet Union in the 1930s-early 1950s, when Stalin systematically killed off most of his critics and rivals for power.

Not even the most determined detractors of the Russian prime minister have ever accused him of being a Stalinist. For all his regrets about the demise of the Soviet Union, Putin understands that Stalinist methods have proved to be fatally flawed everywhere they have been implemented. Why, then, does he allow them to be applied, all over again, in Chechnya, where they are least likely to succeed?

Putin's acquiescence reflects not only despair at the absence of a loyal and qualified cadre on the ground, but also sheer Frankenstein-style hubris. It highlights both Moscow's reluctance to acknowledge the extent and depth of its failures in the North Caucasus, and Putin's personal shortcomings as a leader and manager.

Kadyrov has learnt to capitalize on those failures. Like a lover fearing he could be dumped at any time, he bends over backwards to convince his Kremlin paramour that any other leader would pale in comparison. Similarly, Putin seems -- like a tired wife with a brood of hungry and unruly children -- to have resigned himself to the fact that he is saddled with Kadyrov and all his pathological tendencies.

Meanwhile, Chechen exiles all over the world are bracing themselves for further attacks and further bloodshed, having suddenly become potential targets in a seemingly unstoppable killing frenzy.

Aslan Doukaev is director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL