Even though the "almost imminent" war with Ukraine has been dominating the media in Russia, another important issue has been debated almost constantly: the recent actions of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a person with the unique status in Russia's political elite of not being subject to any laws existing in the Russian Federation.
The Arrest Of Ibrahim Yandulbayev's Mother
The debate was fueled by a conflict that stemmed between Kadyrov and the family of his opponent Ibrahim Yandulbayev, a blogger currently living in exile (supposedly in Turkey). On January 20, 2022, Kadyrov's servicemen (supposedly police officers from Grozny) traveled 1,100 miles into the Central Russia city of Nizhny Novgorod where they captured Ibrahim's mother Zarema Moussaieva (wife of former Justice of the Supreme Court of the Chechen Republic) and escorted her to Grozny, where she was jailed.
Members of the Presidential Human Rights Council and journalists immediately voiced their concerns over the arrest, but Kadyrov dismissed the condemnations and labeled his critics "terrorists." If this was not enough, Kadyrov's loyal servant, Adam Delimkhanov, a member of the State Duma, even threatened to "rip the heads off" all the members of the Yandulbayev family (some records suggest that up to 50 individuals belonging to this large family are missing these days). At least five people fled Russia because of these threats, while around 400,000 people (the number seems to be exaggerated) assembled in Grozny for a rally condemning the Yandulbayev family as "enemies of the people."
The Kremlin remained almost silent during the development of the story. Presidential spokesperson Dimitry Peskov said that it is "almost unbelievable" that Chechen siloviki ("strongmen") captured a woman in a Russian city. However, later it was stated that the woman was detained "according to the law," for assaulting a policeman. Yet, after Delimkhanov's calls to "rip the heads off" the Yandulbayev family, Russian President Vladimir Putin requested that Kadyrov appear in the Kremlin on February 2. It is worth noting that Kadyrov himself posted the news about this meeting, while the Kremlin's press service confirmed it sometime later.
For now, Moscow is trying to minimize the damage from the entire story by transferring the investigation from Chechnya to either Rostov-on-Don (in the Southern Federal District of Russia) or to the Investigative Committee's federal headquarters. Many liberal journalists took the opportunity to assess that the "Yandulbayev case" shows that Putin is unable to control Kadyrov (known for defining himself as "Putin's foot soldier"), who is becoming a leader with almost unlimited power in today's Russia. In fact, some journalists even suggested that Kadyrov should be seriously considered as Russia's future president, drawing telling parallels with Joseph Stalin.
The Kremlin Is Cautious About Triggering Any Kind Of Inter-Ethnic Conflict
The story about the Kadyrov-Yandulbayev conflict was widely debated because it reflects a trend characterizing contemporary Russia. It seems that Russia's national minorities – especially those representing the republics of the Northern Caucasus, which were conquered by the Russian Empire in bloody conflicts in the mid-19th century – had become a kind of special caste. Members of these minorities are formally citizens of Russia, but in reality they are the subjects of their local chiefs and remain under their "protection."
For example, a telling case happened on January 15, 2022, when a young man identifying himself as a native of Dagestan, a multiethnic republic on Russia's Caspian shore, assaulted passengers in a Moscow city bus, calling them "racists" and claiming that someday they all will be beaten "by us" (i.e., the people from the Caucasus). Russian bloggers and media outlets released the video tape of the assault, but the police remained uninterested in the case. It was only after the Head of the Republic of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, condemned the act, insisting that the man apologize both to the people on the bus and to the entire Daghestani nation that he had compromised, that the police started the manhunt and soon arrested the man about 100 miles away from Moscow. The young man was jailed and charged with a hate crime under Art. 282 of the Russian Criminal Code. However, it is worth noting that should Melikov remain silent, the incident might have ended without any serious consequences for the wrongdoer.
The Kremlin pretends to confidently rule over all of Russia, but it is very cautious about triggering any kind of inter-ethnic conflict. Since Putin paved his road to the Kremlin by "pacifying" Chechnya in the early 2000s, he did his best to present Chechnya – and the whole of the Northern Caucasus – as an integral part of Russia, and its residents as full-fledged citizens of the Russian Federation. The Russian nationalists who said that "enough is enough" in transferring Russian money to the region (it is worth noting that Chechnya not only costs the federal budget around one billion rubles a day in subsidies, but pays almost no taxes. The consolidated financial result – i.e., profits minus losses – of all the business enterprises in the republic appeared to be negative in nine years out of the last ten, which means most of the republic's economy is informal), have been pressed hard, and by mid-2010, the entire Russian nationalist movement, though it was not even very radical, was ended.
It is worth noting that, in order to "promote inter-ethnic peace," Russia has recently proposed new legislation that forbids mentioning the nationality or the ethnic identity of people accused of criminal activities. The proposal raised criticism, as it has being considered as an attempt to reduce the freedom of disseminating information and to hide the fact that the Northern Caucasus natives account for a disproportionally large part of both registered and unregistered crimes all over Russia. The fight against the ethnic criminal networks, which reached their apex in the mid-2000s, is now almost abandoned, and the entrepreneurs in many Russian regions say they would "clear out" the Chechens from their towns and cities if allowed to do so because the pressure from criminal gangs is becoming unendurable.
Russia Is Experiencing A Unique Precedent Of An Empire Becoming Subjugated To The Practices Of Its Remote Dependencies
Russians have a great historical experience of cohabitation with people of other ethnic and religious groups. In many regions, the rate of intermarriage exceeds 25 percent, while Russians and locals account for comparable shares of the total population with no serious conflicts in sight. Yet, the difference between, e.g., Tatarstan or Sakha Republic, on the one hand, and Chechnya or Dagestan, on the other, comes from the fact that the former were colonized by Russians settlers and became mixed communities with a strong presence of Russian cultural traditions, Russian language, and even the Russian Orthodox Church, while the latter were conquered and ruled as military possessions and were never considered a natural part of Russia. These days, the share of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians in Ingushetia, a region inside the Russian Federation, stays at 1.25 percent of the total, while in Kyrgyzstan, a remote independent state in Central Asia, once part of the Soviet Union, it exceeds five percent. Russia formally ceased to be an empire after the dissolution of the Soviet Union but it seems it still has possessions, not even colonies, that are ruled in way that is quite special when compared to the rest of the country.
The fate of Russia is that of any empire that embraces people crucially different from those prevailing in the metropolis. In such cases, the central authorities may opt for allowing the local rulers to impose their own system of power and manage the territory under some scheme of vassalage (this was the case of Chechnya immediately after the Russian "Reconquista"). But the problem now consists in the fact that this arbitrary rule by the Kadyrov clan in Chechnya, where the power became hereditary and where most of the top positions are occupied by close or not-so-close relatives of the leader (Kadyrov's 23-year-old daughter currently serves as Chechnya's Culture Minister), is no longer limited to the republic itself, as Chechen police and paramilitaries are operating all over Russia and even organize assassinations abroad. For example, tensions between Kadyrov and another famous Chechen clan, the Yamadayevs, resulted in the killings of two brothers: Ruslan, a decorated serviceman and a Hero of the Russian Federation, who was assassinated in Moscow in 2008, and Sulim, who was shot in Dubai in 2009. Furthermore, it should be noted that most of the Chechens living in Russia possess dual loyalty, and the one binding them to the Chechen leaders is often much stronger than the loyalty to the Russian state and Russian laws. Hence, Russia is experiencing a unique precedent of an empire becoming subjugated to the practices of its remote dependencies fearing either their revolt or secession.
The situation is even more complicated, as possible tensions are not limited to those occurring between the ethnic republics and the federal government – there are many others existing in relations between the ethnic republics themselves. One of the most notable conflicts is the ongoing quarrel between Chechnya and the neighboring Ingushetia, which, according to Kadyrov, "annexed" a part of Chechnya's territory. The dispute descended to violence in March 2019, when the Ingush people rose to a widescale protest against both local and federal authorities. Moscow took Chechnya's side and the border between the two republics was adjusted, while the most active participants of the protests were arrested and sentenced to up to nine-year prison terms. Yet the Chechen leaders continue to insult and provoke the Ingush people, saying that they should apologize and that they may be affronted by the Chechens. Relations between the Chechens and Daghestani people are also not the best ones – one might remember the events of 1999, when Chechen pro-secession forces came to Dagestan in hopes that they would be greeted as fighters for Islam, but the Dagestani locals defended their land fiercely, and the emergence of Russian troops finally ignited the Second Chechen War resulting in the "reunification" of Chechnya with Russia.
I do not share worries about Kadyrov becoming Russia's next president or about Russia being soon governed in accordance with shari'a. Instead, it should be mentioned that Moscow these days behaves very cautiously when it comes to the interests of the Northern Caucasian leaders. The "imperial center" appears to be "captured" by the "peripheral tribes," giving them one concession after another, and there is no sight where this "victorious retreat" may stop. The relation between the Kremlin and the Northern Caucasian leaders is an issue that should be treated very seriously not only by the Russian officials but also by Western policymakers, who should realize Russia's internal weaknesses. An empire that seems ready to take on its powerful "enemies" while possessing enduring and complex problems in its rearward, should not be considered the West's mighty antagonist.
*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor
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