Moscow – The leader of Russian province of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has caused uproar with a series of statements targeting the Russian opposition, signaling growing tensions in the Russian political elites. Kadyrov’s attack on Russian liberal opposition leaders, whom he denounced as ‘enemies of the people’, the language that resembled Stalinist purges, has sent a chill across Russia’s political class. Fears deepened as he posted a video of two Russian opposition leaders seen through crosshairs of a rifle, prompting them to demand that the authorities open a criminal probe into the threat of killing.
Kadyrov’s antics don’t look like an empty bravado in the context of the killing of Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and a leading critic of President Vladimir Putin. Nemtsov was gunned down nearly a year ago as he was walking across a bridge just outside the Kremlin. Several men arrested on charges of involvement in his killing are all Chechen, and the suspected triggerman was an officer of Kadyrov’s security force.
Putin has reportedly been angered by Nemtsov’s murder which has drawn close international attention, but he has stood by the insolent Chechen leader, praising him and awarding him with a medal shortly after the killing.
Putin first won the presidency in 2000 after leading a war in Chechnya, which began after Chechen rebels launched an armed incursion into a separate province and after apartment building explosions in Moscow and other cities blamed on the militants.
The war launched in the fall of 1999 followed the first botched attempt by the Russian army to crush the separatist rebellion in 1994-1996. A quick victory over the rebels bolstered Putin’s popularity and allowed him to easily win the presidency. In a bid to pacify the region, Putin named Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov, the chief mufti of Chechnya and a representative of one of the most influential local clans, as the Chechen leader.
The older Kadyrov still faced resistance from militants who launched regular forays from their hideouts in the mountains. He was killed by a bomb planted by the rebels at the main sports arena in Chechnya’s provincial capital, Grozny.
Putin immediately met with the younger Kadyrov, who was 28 at the time of his father’s death, and anointed him as his father’s successor. He first named him a deputy prime minister of the region due to a legal restriction that prevented a person younger than 30 from becoming the regional leader. Kadyrov moved into the commanding position once he reached the required age. From the very start, Putin’s fatherly patronage gave the young Chechen leader a special privileged status compared to all other provincial governors.
BULWARK OF STABILITY
For Putin, the stabilization of Chechnya was a major achievement of his rule, and he has seen the young Chechen leader as essential for keeping the region under firm control. The Kremlin has funded a lavish reconstruction effort, which quickly rebuilt the war-shattered Chechen capital into a glittering city complete with Europe’s biggest mosque and high-rise buildings.
Along with generous funding, Putin also has given Kadyrov a carte blanche in running the region like his personal fiefdom. The burly red-haired Kadyrov, who fought Russian troops as a teenager during the first Chechen campaign, has built a ruthless security force made of former rebels like himself to uproot the last remaining militants. Known for their brutality, Kadyrov’s men have used extrajudicial arrests, torture and killings to crush any resistance to his rule. At the same time, Kadyrov cast hiself as a pious believer, instilling strict Islamic rules, including mandatory headscarves for women. In open contempt for the Russian law banning polygamy, he quietly allowed local men to have several wives in line with Islamic tradition.
While the Russian military and law enforcement agencies have maintained their presence in Chechnya, they could hardly move a finger without Kadyrov’s approval. The Kremlin has turned a blind eye to all of that, while Kadyrov has vowed unswerving loyalty to Putin