Grozny, Chechnya (openDemocracy) – On 3 June, a group of masked men attacked the offices of the regional branch of the Russian Committee Against Torture in Grozny, Chechnya, destroying computers and documents, and damaging the organisation’s car. The police did not respond to calls by staff about the attack, and the Committee Against Torture reports that the attackers went about their business ‘slowly’, as if they knew the police were not going to be dispatched.
The Russian authorities have remained silent on the case, just as they remain silent on the de facto legalisation of polygamy and forced marriage in Chechnya, and the de facto acquittal of people close to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov who are suspects in the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. But these events prompt questions about the extent to which Chechnya remains a genuine subject of the Russian Federation, and highlight a deeper tension between the federal authorities and Chechnya – now boiling over after years of Kadyrov’s rule.
Russian federalism and asymmetry
Throughout Russian history, the trajectory of power relations between the centre and the regions has swung like a pendulum, oscillating between periods of a more centralised, unitary state, and periods of decentralisation.
During the 1990s, decentralisation was accelerated by President Boris Yeltsin’s challenge to the national republics: ‘Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.’ The result was so disorderly in its implementation, disappointing in its failure to bring about promised economic growth, and terrifying in its perceived flirtation with state collapse, that it ended up swinging the pendulum back in the opposite direction.
In the 2000s, Vladimir Putin launched a programme of re-engagement in the regions. But this re-engagement did not aim to simplify centre-periphery relations in order to keep the union together. Instead, it strived to construct a stronger system of subordination of the regions to Moscow – a now seemingly unassailable vertical power structure.
Although this renegotiation of the federal contract took away any ‘everyday’ meaning that federalism might have in Russia, the very principle of federalism – the delegation of power to regions for better administration – remains central to the Russian state. Here, federal institutions lie dormant, in what Andrei Zakharov calls a ‘federation without federalism’, while the power to coerce remains a key resource in governance.
Throughout history, the trajectory of power relations between the centre and the regions has swung like a pendulum.
This inconsistency is exacerbated by the fact that certain regions’ ‘special status’ has become institutionalised within the system, despite initial proclamations about ‘universal standards.’ This situation has forced the state into a grey zone of centre-periphery relations, which become uncertain and conditional, and structured by continuous bargaining.
These relations are, in practice, determined not by a set of rules, but by any number of informal relationships and agreements between Moscow and regional leaders, based primarily on the arbitrary will of the centre.
Chechnya is perhaps the most striking case of this asymmetry. This has been exemplified in large part by Kadyrov’s repeated defiance and disregard of Russia’s federal laws. Kadyrov’s recent conflicts with the FSB – most notably when he threatened to have his men fire on federal troops who operated on Chechen territory without his blessing – and the silence of Vladimir Putin and other members of the Russian elite, have only highlighted this situation further.
For instance, when opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was murdered metres from the Kremlin’s walls in late February, blame quickly fell on men close to Kadyrov. The Chechen leader publicly came to the defence of one of the accused, Zaur Dadayev, and refused to turn over the others. Dadayev was an officer in Kadyrov’s private army, the Sever Battalion, as was Ruslan Geremeyev, another high-ranking member of the battalion, who is alleged to have been involved in organising the murder. Geremeyev has since fled abroad.
With the lack of a pushback or even a statement from the Kremlin for these acts, Moscow’s authority is beginning to lose traction. While this is sometimes mistaken for outright favouritism or even the opening of a ‘soft exit’ for Chechnya from the Russian Federation, this particular free rein of power resembles what Kimberly Marten calls ‘outsourcing sovereignty.’
Russian has endured two brutal wars, and now faces the spectre of Islamic extremism within state borders. The cost of garnering the political will necessary for directly controlling difficult ground is greater than maintaining a degree of influence and stability through ‘outsourcing sovereignty.’ Even if this outsourcing entails massive federal subsidies.
However, outsourcing sovereignty also means losing the ability to project authority down the power vertical. It is worth reconsidering not just the ‘success’ of Putin’s re-centralisation project, but also his power vertical, which has clearly not integrated Kadyrov. This is what sets Kadyrov apart: he has his own power vertical.
To be sure, Kadyrov’s behaviour would not be fathomable without the loyalty he shows Putin; witness the demonstrative displays, from his relinquishing the title of ‘president’ in 2010 – he said there should only be one president in Russia – to supporting Russian military aggression in Ukraine, ostentatiously sending his own trucks filled with supplies for the displaced in eastern Ukraine; and the more clandestine support, through evidence of Kadyrov’s men taking part in the fighting in Ukraine.
However, it is increasingly unclear whether such acts of loyalty are aimed merely at winning more leeway from the Kremlin, or at creating the opportunity to illustrate that Kadyrov is the first among equals in the federal structure.
In fact, these acts serve to expand his own personal power not only in his pursuing of Chechen interests, but in his striving to extend his influence beyond the borders of Chechnya and the North Caucasus. It is this more subtle, but no less important facet of Kadyrov’s power that underlines his emergence as a transcultural authority.
Kadyrov as a transcultural authority
Kadyrov’s Instagram account (now restricted to subscribers he has approved) is his preferred method of political communication, offering a view into how he constructs himself simultaneously as a guardian of the Kremlin and a guardian of traditional Islam and Caucasian identity.
For example, Kadyrov was recently made chairman of the Chechen branch of the Night Wolves motorcycle gang. Formed in the 1980s, the Night Wolves have increased their media profile in recent years after staging numerous public events in defence of Orthodox values and, of course, making appearances with the Russian president. Kadyrov, of course, promptly (and proudly) shared evidence of this bizarre ceremony via his Instagram account.
By taking centre stage in such dramatic displays, Kadyrov mimics his idol, Vladimir Putin, who is also famed for such outlandish displays. Kadyrov is simultaneously showing his loyalty to the centre and illustrating (spectacularly) that he occupies a unique place in Russia’s federal hierarchy. .
After the Charlie Hebdo murders in January of this year, Kadyrov organised a protest against the French publication, for its offensiveness to Muslims. In remarks posted on Instagram, Kadyrov wrote: ‘We will not allow anyone to insult the prophet, even if it will cost us our lives … And if we’re still staying quiet, that doesn’t mean we can’t bring millions of people to their feet across the world to march in protest at those who repeat the insults against Muslims’ religious sentiments.’
And in a gathering that many said involved state coercion, hundreds of thousands of people (Russia’s police stated 800,000) duly congregated in Grozny to make Kadyrov’s words come true.
Apart from Putin, there is no other leader in Russia capable of ‘inspiring’ such a public demonstration. This image-making project is an enactment of political subjectivity that resonates with wider constituencies, and is accessible to a range of diverse groups from Russian nationalists to the broader community of Russian Muslims. It is essentially a self-conscious strategy of self-assertion and Chechen nation-building that has the capacity to influence spaces outside of itself.
The very existence of Kadyrov is an anomaly of the Russian federative system.
The very existence of Kadyrov is an anomaly of the Russian federative system. Indeed, it subverts the existing hierarchy of the formal system of relations.
In large part, this is due to the interdependence of Kadyrov and Putin. A joke popular in Chechnya several years ago turned on the idea that if Putin woke up one morning 15 minutes late, Kadyrov’s body would already be cold. To what extent, however, does the opposite hold true? Without Kadyrov, will Putin’s system collapse?
Putin’s popularity was built on his subjugation of Chechnya, and his role as a strong leader capable of bringing problem regions in line was seen as a further manifestation of the success of the power vertical. But the creation of the power vertical and the methodical destruction of any mediating link between public institutions means that the system relies wholly on Putin, on the individual.
Any minor change in the system will lead to upheaval that the Russian state may not be prepared to deal with. If that were to happen, it would be a consequence of ruling not through institutions, but through the grey area of informal relations and personality. For that reason, when the Putin era eventually comes to an end, sooner or later the tension between the Russian Federation’s formal structure and the de facto state of relations must be reconciled.