Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov appears sanguine about the new-look Medvedev-Putin partnership that has emerged in Moscow. However, despite significant personnel changes in the presidential administration and a parallel government reshuffle, certain powerful politicos in Moscow, who have opposed Kadyrov over the past four years, have managed to retain much of their pre-election power and influence. Disagreements between Kadyrov and this constituency are manifold, but it is the dispute concerning where ownership of Chechnya’s natural resources should reside that is perhaps the greatest point of contention.
BACKGROUND: When it became evident late last year that Dmitri Medvedev would succeed Vladimir Putin as Russian president, Ramzan Kadyrov must have heaved a sigh of relief. For one thing, the alternatives to Medvedev were not attractive. His main rival in the contest to succeed Putin was Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB operative. Ivanov was reported to be on close terms with certain Kremlin lobbyists—chief among them Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Igor Sechin—who would sooner see Kadyrov removed from the presidency than invested with further political and economic powers. The prospect of a dark-horse candidate taking Putin’s place was equally as unsettling for Kadyrov; especially given the likelihood that such a person would be drawn from the security services, a constituency broadly hostile to the Kadyrov clan. Secondly, Medvedev enjoys good relations with Kadyrov’s most consistent benefactor over the past four years, Vladislav Surkov. Surkov’s reappointment as deputy head of the presidential apparatus following Medvedev’s formal election in March means that he will have ready access to the new president just as he did to the previous one. Kadyrov was further comforted by Putin’s decision to remain active in Russian politics by accepting the chairmanship of the Russian government and the leadership of the United Russia party. The Putin-Surkov-Kadyrov axis has undoubtedly been the key component in Kremlin decision-making concerning Chechnya in recent times. This axis no longer exists in its previous guise following Medvedev’s election and Putin’s subsequent relocation to the Russian White House. However, Putin and Surkov will continue to have considerable input in determining Moscow’s political and economic policies toward Chechnya: last month Putin sanctioned a four-year programme of federal investment in Chechnya amounting to $4.7 billion; Surkov, meanwhile, was part of a presidential deputation which visited Chechnya on June 26, an occasion which will be discussed in more detail later.
Since his formal installation as president, Medvedev has made a number of personnel appointments that will give Kadyrov cause for concern. In May, Medvedev replaced his distinctly low-profile plenipotentiary representative to the Southern Federal District, Grigori Rapota, with Vladimir Ustinov, formerly Russia’s minister for justice. Like the aforementioned Sechin, Ustinov is widely seen as a member of the so-called Siloviki clan—a sort of ad hoc community of hawkish politicians and business-people, many of whom have backgrounds in Russia’s intelligence services. This siloviki faction was regarded as the main source of opposition to the Kadyrov clan during the course of Vladimir Putin’s eight-year presidency. Another troubling development for Kadyrov concerns the appointment of Sergei Naryshkin, another member of this faction, as Medvedev’s new chief of staff.
IMPLICATIONS: The Siloviki clan is now, if anything, in a better position to influence key aspects of federal policy with respect to Chechnya. One of the most instructive developments has been Sechin’s appointment as minister for energy and industrial policy in Prime Minister Putin’s new government. Sechin, who is also the chairman of Rosneft, a major Russian oil company, holds a low opinion of Kadyrov, mainly because of the latter’s designs on Chechnya’s estimated 200 billion-ruble-a-year oil industry, presently controlled by Rosneft. Simmering tensions between these two parties reached boiling point in March when Rosneft announced plans to situate a new oil refinery in Kabardino-Balkaria rather than in Chechnya. This announcement elicited a furious response from representatives of Kadyrov’s government, with parliamentary speaker and close Kadyrov ally, Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, describing the decision rather melodramatically as ‘an insult to the entire Chechen people’. Rosneft also stands accused by Chechen officials of neglecting its responsibilities in the republic’s social sphere; but it is clear that Kadyrov is less concerned about the company’s questionable social responsibility than he is about breaking its stranglehold on Chechnya’s oil industry.
During a meeting with Kadyrov in April, Medvedev gave a broad undertaking to tackle the dispute between Rosneft and the Chechen government. As yet, however, the new Russian president has been unwilling, or perhaps unable, to make good on this undertaking. Sechin’s assignment to the energy portfolio might be regarded as a signal to Kadyrov to drop this matter, especially given that this appointment was made by Putin personally. Other developments further suggest that the Russian leadership will ultimately side with the Rosneft crowd — as suggested by Naryshkin’s promotion, for example. Naryshkin, a board member of Rosneft and a close associate of Sechin’s, has already given an indication that he will adopt a firm posture when dealing with the Chechen leadership. On June 26 Naryshkin flew to Grozny to meet with Kadyrov. Far from treating this meeting as a ‘get-to-know-you’ session, Naryshkin bemoaned the underdevelopment of municipal government in Chechnya, deeming it over-reliant on Kadyrov’s central government. Two and a half thousand — undoubtedly Russian — specialists would be required to rectify this situation, he claimed. For Kadyrov, who has aggressively de-Russified Chechnya’s bureaucracy over the past number of years, this statement must have seemed provocative. Kadyrov will have been reassured by Surkov’s presence in the visiting delegation, but he will be aware that for all his good will, Surkov will not be able to settle the Rosneft controversy in his favour. The one person who could possibly do that — Vladimir Putin — depends too much on the siloviki caucus to risk falling out with them over this controversy.
CONCLUSIONS: The series of fresh corruption charges recently brought against the former head of Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, suggest that the siloviki — Sechin and Ustinov were intimately connected with the 2003 campaign against Khodorkovsky — are still a force to be reckoned with in Russian politics. To be sure, some siloviki did suffer during the recent round of firings, appointments and reappointments following Medvedev’s election, but just as many have prospered. Naryshkin, formerly a deputy prime minister, is now President Medvedev’s top aide in the Kremlin. Sechin, meanwhile, as a newly appointed deputy prime minister, has secured continued access to Putin, for now still the unquestioned strongman of Russian politics. Kadyrov’s access to Putin is perhaps less assured. Surkov, it now seems, is more a part of ‘Medvedev’s team’ but surely still retains informal communication with the new prime minister.
By nature Kadyrov is intractable, and the fact that Sechin, Naryshkin and their supporters remain an influential lobby in Russian political circles will not deter him from hounding his Moscow contacts about Rosneft’s oil-production monopoly in Chechnya. Estimates on how much Rosneft earns annually from its operations in Chechnya vary wildly, but it can be said with certainty that its continuing exploitation of Chechen oil is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. This stark economic fact accounts for Kadyrov’s near-obsession with securing economic dominion over Chechnya’s oil resources.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Kevin Daniel Leahy holds a postgraduate degree from University College Cork, Ireland.