A striking series of contradictory statements by pro-Moscow Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and federal officials in Moscow — about the federal “counter-terrorist operation” in Chechnya, as well on several other contentious issues — suggest strains between Kadyrov and his Moscow patrons.
Furthermore, mixed signals and abrupt policy reversals by Russian officials on several of these issues suggest disagreements or uncertainty among the governing elite in Moscow on how best to deal with Kadyrov and his ambitions.
On 25 March, Kadyrov stated publicly that he expected the federal “counter-terrorist operation” (CTO) regime, which Moscow imposed in the republic in 2002, to be officially lifted by the end of March. He predicted the “appropriate federal departments” would issue a document to that effect on 30 or 31 March.
The next day, Kadyrov elaborated that Chechen law enforcement agencies under his control, rather than federal troops, would have full responsibility for maintaining order and security in Chechnya. Kadyrov gave some indication of his ambitions in an interview with the leftist-nationalist Zavtra published on 8 April. He asserted Russia needed “spiritual reinforcement” and must “fight against drug addiction, alcoholism, and debauchery” and “shut down TV stations showing murder, copulation, and the triumph of evil.” He offered his own rule in Chechnya as an example for other regional leaders in Russia, boasting he had banned gambling casinos, sharply restricted alcohol sales, and suppressed illegal drug trafficking with, in his words, “an iron fist.” He also said he wanted control of “our share” of revenues from oil production.
Some senior officials in Moscow, including Duma Speaker and ruling United Russia party leader Boris Gryzlov, voiced support for lifting the CTO regime. Most important, on 27 March, President Dmitriy Medvedev “instructed” Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Aleksandr Bortnikov to have the National Anti-terrorism Committee (NAC), which Bortnikov chairs,”consider” lifting the regime.
Nonetheless, other officials in Moscow seemed wary of lifting the CTO regime: Even before Medvedev discussed the CTO regime with Bortnikov, an anonymous Kremlin source warned it would probably not be lifted as soon as Kadyrov had predicted.
The federal Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD), whose troops have in recent years borne the brunt of the fighting in Chechnya, declined comment. Deputy Internal Affairs Minister Arkadiy Yedelev said the whole idea was “news to me.” MVD Internal Troops Commander Nikolay Rogozhkin said “relatively few” MVD troops would be withdrawn from Chechnya, and only if so ordered — and he took the occasion to stress that MVD troops in Chechnya took their orders from Moscow, not Kadyrov.
On 28 March, there was an attempted assassination of Sulim Yamadayev, a prominent pro-Russian Chechen former military commander and long-time Kadyrov rival, in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). On 31 March, the NAC met and, in apparent disregard of Medvedev’s “instruction” to Bortnikov and despite a personal address to the session by Kadyrov, declined to recommend lifting the CTO regime, but did agree to re-open Groznyy Airport to international traffic. An unidentified NAC source declined to say whether the attack on Yamadayev influenced the NAC’s decision.
Yamadayev: Alive or Dead?
Ever since Yamadayev was shot on 28 March, there have been conflicting reports as to whether or not he survived the attack. Most media and officials — in both Dubai and Russia — stated Sulim Yamadayev was in fact dead. On 30 March, Kadyrov’s press spokesman and the Russian consul in Dubai both stated Yamadayev’s death had been “officially confirmed.” However, the mass-circulation dailies Moskovskiy Komsomolets and Komsomolskaya Pravda offered elaborate conspiracy theories that either Yamadayev, or “Arab special services,” had falsely staged his death and that he gone into hiding to avoid assassination. On 16 April, the respected daily Kommersant referred to the attack on Yamadayev as an “attempted murder.” As late as 29 April, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said the Ministry had still received no “official information” from the UAE about Yamadayev’s “alleged murder,” and Yamadayev’s relatives were still claiming he was alive and being treated in a Dubai hospital.
On 16 April, the NAC reversed itself and announced the end of the CTO regime, effective immediately, but other agencies immediately limited the announcement’s scope. On the same day, unnamed “sources in the Southern Federal District law enforcement agencies” told the state news agency ITAR-TASS the CTO regime would remain in force in extensive mountainous and foothill regions of southern Chechnya, covering about half the republic’s territory. On 21 April, a military spokesman told ITAR-TASS a CTO was actually under wayy in the Itum-Kale and Vedeno areas of southern Chechnya.
Perhaps trying to counter the implication that a significant insurgency continues in southern Chechnya, Kadyrov announced on 22 April that construction of a large sports and recreation complex in Vedeno was well under way and would soon be completed.
Nonetheless, Kadyrov and Russian military authorities continued to send contradictory signals about the CTO regime. On 27 April, the military command announced the CTO regime would remain in place in the Shatoy and Vedeno areas but that a CTO that started in the Shali area on 23 April would be ended. On the same day, Kadyrov “angrily” denied that the Shali CTO had ever taken place and asserted that he had met with the Russian military commander for the North Caucasus and agreed with him that the CTO regime “had been ended throughout Chechen territory.” On 28 April, Kadyrov and Chechen Internal Affairs Minister Ruslan Alkhanov repeated that henceforth the Chechen law enforcement agencies have the responsibility of maintaining order and security in the republic.
Political, Not Military, Significance Seen
At any rate, several non-official observers argued the true significance of ending the CTO regime was not its effect on the military situation but rather the solidification of Kadyrov’s personal control over Chechnya, leaving Moscow with little or no leverage left to control him.
According to prominent political observer Svetlana Samoylova, ending the regime would have little military significance, since Kadyrov has long since gained effective control of all armed formations in the republic. However, she claimed that the prospect was “viewed warily at the federal level, especially in the military,” because it would “expand Kadyrov’s political and economic power . . . and allow him to pursue policies more independent from the federal center.”
The widely-read and editorially independent Gazeta.ru website cited unnamed “experts and politicians” as saying that “the Kremlin has caved in to Kadyrov, to the detriment of its own image.” The website also cited pro-Kremlin commentator Aleksandr Khinshteyn as saying he viewed the decision to end the CTO regime “without special enthusiasm.”
A writer from the independent website Politkom.ru opined, “The regime of one-person power and the effective autonomy status based on an implicit personal pact between Ramzan Kadyrov and Moscow will be legalized definitively.”
Kadyrov seems to consider the re-opening of Groznyy Airport to international flights and the establishment of a customs post there to be a key goal. As early as 3 March, he raised the issue with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and said Putin had “instructed” the NAC to allow this. Kadyrov’s press secretary, Alvi Kerimov, said on 26 March that Chechens believed re-opening the airport to international traffic was the most important factor in reviving the republic’s economy. Hailing the lifting of the CTO regime on 16 April, Kadyrov said that — without waiting for the NAC decision — a customs post had already been built at the airport and other measures were already being taken “at a rapid pace” for it to handle international flights.
However, some in Moscow may view the prospect of an international airport and customs post under Kadyrov’s control as particularly disquieting: The Moscow Times, a liberal foreign-owned publication with a high degree of independence, noted that during Dzhokar Dudayev’s separatist regime in 1991-1994, Groznyy Airport was a regional nexus for smuggling. Viktor Alksnis, a prominent nationalist opposition figure, raised the same point in opposing lifting the CTO regime. Kremlin critic Stanislav Belkovskiy predicted that a flood of expensive foreign consumer goods would enter Russia through the new international airport, evading federal import duties.
The popular daily Moskovskiy Komsomolets, which often follows an independent editorial line, speculated that Kadyrov could use the airport to bypass federal border controls and bring home high-profile emigre separatists he has been courting, such as Akhmed Zakayev, and whose return Moscow has opposed.
Evidently trying to assuage such fears, the pro-government daily Izvestiya cited unnamed “experts” as saying that the border guards and customs agents at Groznyy Airport would be under federal, not Chechen Republic, control. However, in view of Kadyrov’s successful track record of bringing practically all institutions in the republic under his effective control in spite of long-standing misgivings by many in Moscow, the value of such assurances is questionable.
For instance, Khinshteyn predicted the airport customs post would be under Kadyrov’s control.
On 22 April, Chechen Premier Odes Baysultanov announced the airport would henceforth be Chechen Republic property. He said federal authorities would retain control of only the airport’s runway and “technical equipment.” Most important, Baysultanov said there would be a “republic customs post” there.
Moscow Opposes Zakayev’s Possible Return
The status of Akhmed Zakayev, head of the London-based secular-nationalist separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria government in exile, has been a particular bone of contention between Kadyrov and Moscow. Moscow was quick to squelch a flurry of media reports in January that Zakayev might be allowed to return to Chechnya.
On 17 February, Kremlin official Anatoliy Safonov told a press conference there are still outstanding criminal charges against Zakayev and that if he returned to Russia he would have to “prove his innocence in court.” Safonov also said Russian-UK relations remained “frozen” over London’s refusal to extradite Zakayev.
On 26 February, Kadyrov press secretary Lema Gudayev was suddenly dismissed from his post, according to anonymous “sources” in Kadyrov’s office. There was no official announcement of or explanation for Gudayev’s dismissal; the official Chechen Government website did not even mention it. The usually well-informed Caucasus Times website opined Kadyrov had dismissed Gudayev, despite his status as a long-time and trusted associate, under pressure from Moscow because of Gudayev’s strikingly outspoken 29 January critique of the federal accusations against Zakayev and his insistence that Zakayev was welcome to return home.
Nonetheless, apparently ignoring federal threats to prosecute Zakayev, Kadyrov himself continued to repeat invitations to him to return home, with no mention of possible prosecution, in a series of interviews and press conferences.
Yamadayev’s Murder — Kadyrov’s Role?
The 28 March assassination — or attempted assassination –of Sulim Yamadayev in Dubai exposed other fault lines between Kadyrov and Moscow, as well as illustrating Moscow’s ambivalence about him.
Many non-official observers in Russia took it for granted Kadyrov had engineered the murder of Yamadayev — a long-time political rival as well as a prominent military commander in pro-Russian forces. In what may have been a show of bravado, Kadyrov was photographed for a 17 April interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda holding a gold-plated Makarov pistol (at left), which he said he always carries with him. Politkom.ru reported that a similar gold-plated pistol was used to shoot Yamadayev and was found at the crime scene by the Dubai police.
In contrast, Moskovskiy Komsomolets asserted Kadyrov has several gold-plated pistols and speculated that the gun was planted at the crime scene as part of a plot to both fake Yamadayev’s death and falsely implicate Kadyrov.
Kremlin critic Yuliya Latynina portrayed Yamadayev’s killing as only the latest stage in the long-running blood feud between the Kadyrov and Yamadayev clans. Moskovskiy Komsomolets reported victory celebrations in Kadyrov’s home town of Tsentoroy upon news of Yamadayev’s death. Belkovskiy argued it was simply foolish to suggest Kadyrov had not ordered Yamadayev’s murder and sarcastically theorized that authorities in Moscow were waiting for instructions from Kadyrov as to how they should react to the killing of such a prominent figure. The Dubai police eventually named Russian Duma member Adam Delimkhanov, a close associate of Kadyrov, as a suspect in the killing.
Kadyrov denied the charges but rehashed earlier accusations that Yamadayev was guilty of a variety of crimes, including murder and kidnapping, and claimed Yamadayev was in Dubai as a fugitive from justice. Furthermore, Kadyrov added the new charges that Yamadayev played a role in the 2004 murder of his father, the late Chechen President Akhmat Kadyrov, and had plotted to kill Ramzan Kadyrov himself.
In contrast to Kadyrov, Russian authorities — in Moscow and Dubai — did not accuse Yamadayev of any wrongdoing. Instead, they repeatedly referred to him as a Hero of Russia and said they would “follow the investigation closely” because of his status as a holder of the country’s highest honor. Igor Korotchenko, a member of the Defense Ministry Public Council, praised Yamadayev as a “significant figure” in Russia’s military.
Nonetheless, Moscow’s attitude toward Yamadayev’s murder seemed lukewarm. The Moscow Times complained of a “deafening silence,” which it attributed to an “informal agreement” between Moscow and Kadyrov giving him “free rein” in Chechen affairs — even to the extent of having Yamadayev murdered — in exchange for his loyalty and for suppressing the insurgency.
When the UAE requested Delimkhanov’s extradition, the Russian General Prosecutor’s office indicated he could not be extradited due to a constitutional prohibition, but did not address the validity of the accusations against him. Stanovaya suggested Moscow faced a dilemma: Extraditing Delimkhanov would undercut Moscow’s strategy of holding Chechnya through “unequivocal reliance” on Kadyrov. On the other hand, protecting Delimkhanov would create an image problem, making Moscow seem indifferent to the murder of a Hero of Russia.
At Ramzan Kadyrov’s request, the federal Prosecutor’s Office Investigations Committee agreed on 16 April to reopen the long-closed investigation into Akhmat Kadyrov’s death to establish whether Yamadayev had been involved. However, in yet another display of Moscow’s ambivalence toward Kadyrov and his demands, the Investigations Committee reversed that decision the next day, calling it “groundless” and “premature.”
Meanwhile, Kadyrov and the entire Chechen power structure –including the republic’s legislature, its speaker, the human rights ombudsman,and others — rose to Delimkhanov’s defense, calling the charges against him a “provocation” designed to harm Chechen relations with the UAE and to destabilize Chechnya.
The events of the last several weeks suggest the Russian Government is sticking with its long-standing policy of allowing Kadyrov to amass near-total power in Chechnya, despite serious misgivings among many in Moscow. Recent events may well have strengthened those misgivings, and some senior officials in Moscow may now be resisting granting Kadyrov even more power. By the same token, however, recent events suggest no one in Moscow has any practical alternative to the present policy of relying on Kadyrov to hold Chechnya, in spite of his faults.