by Hajira Qureshi (World, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 2, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1428)
On March 1, Russian president Vladimir Putin, having accepted President AliAlkhanov’s resignation two weeks earlier, nominated acting president Ramzan Kadyrov (pic right, with Putin) for the presidency of Chechnya. Shakhid Dzhamaldayev and Muslim Khuchiyev were also nominated as a purely formal gesture. The next day, the nominations were taken to the Chechen parliament, where Kadyrov was confirmed as the next president; 56 of the 58 votes cast were for the Kremlin-backed Kadyrov, one MP voted against and one abstained.
The ‘confirmation’ of Kadyrov as president comes as no surprise; 33 of the 58 parliamentary seats are held by members of the regional branch of the United Russia party, which is headed by Kadyrov himself. The speaker of the parliament’s National Assembly and many other members of the parliament are close relatives of Kadyrov’s. Since he turned 30 last October, the minimum age for a Russian regional leader, his ascension to the presidency has been widely regarded as inevitable. In Chechnya, he has created for himself a ‘cult of personality’. Alkhanov’s50th birthday went largely unnoticed; Kadyrov’s 30th birthday, by contrast, was celebrated with much exuberance: a large concert was held in Grozny, with Russian pop-stars performing there.
Human-rights activists are outraged by the appointment of Kadyrov as president. They accuse Kadyrov and his personal militia, the ‘kadyrovsky’, of having kidnapped, tortured, murdered and perpetrated numerous other human-rights abuses against the Chechen people since 2000, when his father Akhmad Kadyrov was designated head of the Chechen republic government by Moscow. Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe human rights commissioner, who visited Chechnya earlier last month, has said that it continues to be plagued by allegations of torture and officials’ failure to respond.
Since his election and as early as March 5, Kadyrov has worked relentlessly to build his own personal power-base, replacing former position-holders with members of his own family and others loyal to him. Odes Baysultanov, former deputy prime minister andKadyrov’s cousin, is to become prime minister. Muslim Khuchiyev, vice-president of the Akhmad Kadyrov Foundation, will be appointed Grozny’s mayor. These are just two examples of the many changes to the power structure in Grozny. As ever, by accepting Alkhanov’s resignation and placing Kadyrov firmly in the president’s chair, Putin has shamelessly flouted the process of elections and democracy. He has shown that the will of the man at the top means more than the electoral process.
Over a period of time, Moscow has increasingly adopted a policy of ‘Chechenisation’ of power. This is delegating the running ofChechnya to the local ‘elite’: those loyal to Moscow. In line with this policy, on March 15 Kadyrov won a deal to let Chechen prisoners serve their sentences in Chechnya. There are over 1,000 Chechens in prisons all over Russia. However, the deal does not apply to Chechens who are serving life sentences.
Kadyrov’s popularity, such as it is, derives from his efforts to reconstruct Grozny and rebuild the economy of Chechnya. He resorts to populist gestures to legitimise his rule, such as zikrism (a mystical Islamic movement, popular in Chechnya since the nineteenth century). On February 15, Kadyrov prayed with his family in his native village of Tsentoroi, after which he declared he will be visiting ziyarts: the tombs of famous religious leaders in Chechen history. Since then Alkhanov and Kadyrov had been at odds to prove their greater following of Kunta Haji, the nineteenth-century founder of zikrism. Kunta Haji’s message was one of non-violence; he gained a large following among the population after the end of an exhaustive war with Russia. Others are less impressed by Kadyrov and predict that “Ramzan and his people will get richer and ordinary people will just stagnate and do nothing”.
On March 21 Kadyrov met Chechen community leaders in Moscow, encouraging them to support him as he rebuilds Grozny. They voiced their full support for him and his reconstruction of Grozny, which he claims will be complete by the end of 2008. Among others who attended were Aslan Aslakhanov, the presidential advisor, Abubakar Arsamakov, head of the Moscow Industrial Bank, and other influential businessmen. Kadyrov is also continuing his campaign against ORB-2, an operative-investigative unit of theSouthern Federal District’s main interior ministry that operates in Chechnya. Kadyrov, along with human-rights activists, has accused ORB-2 of using torture. His critics accuse Kadyrov of campaigning against ORB-2 to gain popularity and deflect accusations of human-rights abuses from himself.
On March 15 Interfax reported that Ramzan Kadyrov has proposed to amend the Chechen constitution to bring it in line with the federal constitution. He is reported to have said: “We live in one country. The Chechen republic is part of Russia. Our laws should have no discrepancies.” Ismail Baikhanov, the head of the Chechen Election Commission, announced on March 17 that Chechnyawould hold a referendum to amend the constitution before the end of the year. Under the new constitution Chechnya will no longer be a sovereign state, nor will it need to hold direct presidential elections and its two-house parliament will become a single-house authority, elected under the party lists. Stripping Chechnya of sovereignty will, in all probability, have no immediate consequences. However, taking away the provision for presidential elections in Chechnya is extremely telling. This move is removing provisions for the Chechen people to voice their discontent or disapproval.
The separation of powers treaty, drafted during the presidency of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, calling for economic autonomy for Chechnya, including allowing it to keep substantial revenues from its oil-wealth, has been declared “unnecessary” by Ramzan. He added that such a treaty, which would delimit powers between Chechnya and the federal centre, would weaken Russia and is not relevant.
Following Kadyrov’s comments about such a treaty, the Chechen parliament demanded compensation for the victims of the deportations of 1944 and the subsequent exile. The Chechen parliament pointed out that victims of Stalinist reprisals elsewhere inRussia were compensated years ago, while no such compensations were made to the Chechens. When compensation was given in 1992, it was so little that the inflation of the 1990s had made it “laughable and financially meaningless”. Although the accusation is denied, experts believe the Chechen parliamentarians’ initiative for compensation is in return for giving up the idea of a treaty delimiting powers and the adoption of a new constitution.
Putin wants stability in Chechnya with pro-Moscow rule firmly in place. If it were not for the second Chechen war, Putin might never have come to power. In 1999, the polls showed his popularity rating to be only 2 percent. After apartment bombings in parts ofRussia (many, including the late Alexander Litvinenko, suspected FSB involvement, although they were blamed on Chechen rebels) and the subsequent invasion of Chechnya, Putin won a landslide victory to the Russian presidency in 2000. Now, he is working towards his legacy: Kadyrov and a ‘stable’ Chechnya; he must step down from the presidency in the coming year. However, Putinhas still not managed to subdue Chechnya; Chechen ‘rebels’ have killed 18 Russian soldiers just in the last week of March.
Putin has adopted a policy of ‘Chechenisation’, and the new government consists of many ex-rebels whose loyalty he has bought with huge subsidies from Moscow. Rival warlords have been kept in check by these subsidies, and there is little public opposition toKadyrov. Unlike Alkhanov, however, whose loyalty was to Russia, Kadyrov’s loyalty is very much to Putin himself. How long this precarious stability in Chechnya will last after Putin has left office is anyone’s guess. What the policy of the new president of Russiawill be with regards to Kadyrov is something only time will tell. Until then critics in Russia and Chechnya are too frightened to speak out. The Chechens are relieved that Kadyrov is rebuilding their homes; they feel Kadyrov’s rule is better than FSB rule and that one warlord is better than many competing ones. Kadyrov has made many promises: to reduce the number of checkpoints in Chechnya, to create jobs and build houses, to build oil-refineries in Grozny, to improve the moral state of Chechnya, and so on. After twelve years of a brutal campaign by world’s fifth largest military force, any improvement in their daily lives will be welcome.