BACKGROUND: On August 29, the Russian Prosecutor General’s office surprisingly confronted abuses by the Chechen law enforcement agencies, issuing a special penalty ruling for their colleagues in Chechnya. Sergei Vasilkov, the deputy head of the Prosecutor General’s office in the North Caucasus Federal District, explained to the public that Chechen investigators failed to launch investigations into 60 cases of disappearances and kidnappings that took place in the republic during the period 1990-2000. Vasilkov cited the kidnapping of the Russian President’s Plenipotentiary Representative Valentin Vlasov, who was kidnapped in 1998 and released within several months after the payment of a ransom. Three reporters of Russian news agencies, 20 police officers, one prosecutor-general, two FSB officers, seven foreign citizens and over 50 other Russian citizens were also on the list of kidnapping cases that were not investigated by the Chechen side, according to the Russian prosecution. The Russian official said that overall, nearly 3,000 people in the North Caucasus are listed as missing, over half of which went missing during the war in Chechnya. On August 31, the Chechen side retaliated by sending a letter to the president of Russia and the leader of Chechnya, asking them to find people who had been kidnapped by the Russian forces and to punish the perpetrators. The letter was signed by 300 relatives of those kidnapped.
Russian officials extremely rarely go public about present or past adverse developments in Chechnya. The Russian government arguably committed more crimes in Chechnya than did Kadyrov, however notorious he may be. Hence, prosecutor Vasilkov was selective about which cases to highlight and exclusively focused on those taking place during Chechnya’s period of quasi-independence in 1996-1999, when Aslan Maskhadov ruled the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
Kadyrov and his entourage are still vulnerable to the accusations since many, including Kadyrov himself, participated in Chechnya’s struggle against Russian forces during the first Chechen war in 1994-1996 and afterwards. Having defected to the Russian side at the start of the second Russian-Chechen war in 1999, Kadyrov along with his father, Ahmad Kadyrov used brutal tactics to suppress resistance in Chechnya. Russia attained relative peace and stability in Chechnya by delegating much power to Kadyrov's family, having implemented a policy of so-called Chechenization. However, the central government also lost much control over the republic.
IMPLICATIONS: Many Russian commentators lamented the fact that Chechnya under Kadyrov became more independent than was the case under its previous separatist leaders, while at the same time securing generous funding from Moscow.
According to Alexander Kalyapin, head of the Russian Committee Against Torture, even such seemingly omnipotent Russian agencies as the FSB could not properly carry out investigations on Chechen territory as the Chechen government simply ignored them. “Kadyrov’s ‘guardsmen’ are absolutely immune to Russian laws,” Kalyapin told Bigcaucasus.com in an interview in March 2013.
In March-April 2013, Russian liberal paper Novaya Gazeta unveiled a story about Kadyrov’s men engaging in kidnappings, torture and extortions in Moscow. Yet, soon after those accused were detained, they were promptly released and Russian security officers involved in the investigation reportedly staged a walkout in Moscow. Since then, negative news about Kadyrov and Chechnya has prevailed in the Russian media and pressure on Kadyrov’s government has mounted. In late May, Kadyrov promised to remove all his portraits from the streets in Chechnya during a confrontational press conference with Russian journalists and made good on his promise.
Many observers believe that the precarious peace in Chechnya is founded on personal agreements between Putin and Kadyrov. While the latter received enormous powers within Chechnya, he also provided a semblance of stability and loyalty to Russia that had been unknown to Chechnya for many years. Changing this balance would seem unwise on Moscow’s part. However, there are at least two interlinked factors that undermine Chechnya’s special status within Russia: the rising resent among ethnic Russians toward North Caucasians and the gradual decline of Putin’s popularity. Changes in Russia’s policy toward Chechnya are also consistent with the general trend of establishing greater direct rule by Russian authorities in the North Caucasus.
Russian nationalism is on the rise and slogans such as “Stop Feeding the [North] Caucasus!” have become common in the country. Ethnic Russians feel that too much of the country’s resources are consumed by the predominantly non-Russian North Caucasus. At the same time, ethnic Russians have become less tolerant toward the non-Russian culture of the North Caucasians and frustrated with the situation in the region. A poll conducted by the Levada Center, a respected polling organization, in July 2013 revealed that 75 percent of Russians thought that the situation in the North Caucasus was “critical,” “explosive” and “tense.” This percentage has remained almost exactly the same every year since 2007.
As ethnic Russians become increasingly critical of Moscow’s policies toward the North Caucasus, Russian politicians, including Putin, must react to the changing attitudes. The popular opposition figure Alexei Navalny made good use of the Russian government’s mistakes in the North Caucasus, pressing the Kremlin to adopt a harder line in order to keep up with public opinion. The election campaign for the position of Moscow’s mayor, which culminated in the victory of the incumbent Kremlin candidate Sergei Sobyanin on September 8, also led to a sweeping crackdown on illegal migrants in the city. Due to the long held Russian tradition of restricting the movement of its own citizens, illegal migrants in the Russian capital included not only foreigners but also Russian citizens, most prominently North Caucasians.
What appears to be a “race to the bottom” is taking place in Russia, as both Putin’s regime and leading opposition figures, such as Alexei Navalny, strive to outperform each other in harshness on the North Caucasus. Chechnya is naturally the first target because Kadyrov evidently enjoys the greatest degree of autonomy from Moscow among all regional leaders and has the closest relationship with Vladimir Putin. The stakes in Chechnya are quite high, because unsettling the situation in the republic for the third time since the breakup of the USSR will take place in very different circumstances. During the first two wars with Russia, Chechnya was an island of instability in the North Caucasus. In contrast, most parts of the North Caucasus are now unstable and Chechnya is not currently the most violent republic. If the situation in Chechnya would spiral out of control, the area of instability in the North Caucasus would expand more than ever before in recent history.
CONCLUSIONS: As the Russian government indicates that it wants to establish greater control over Chechnya, tensions in the republic and the wider North Caucasus region risk intensifying. Russian nationalism appears to be the main driver behind the changes as both the Kremlin and popular opposition figures are headed in the same direction of establishing greater direct rule over Chechnya and in the North Caucasus in general. Breaking the status quo in Chechnya would likely result in a ripple effect throughout the already volatile North Caucasus. These processes appear to be closely linked with the trajectory of Putin’s regime. As the regime is becoming weaker, the pressure on Kadyrov’s government is likely to increase. Changes in Chechnya and in the North Caucasus in general appear to be imminent.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.