RAMZAN WITHOUT SHAMIL

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Now that Shamil Basayev is dead, what will Ramzan Kadyrov do next?

Even before Shamil Basayev’s death, it was obvious that calls for negotiations with the separatists were completely unrealistic. And now there’s simply no one to negotiate with. The Kremlin will have to focus entirely on maintaining stability in Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya.


So Shamil Basayev is gone. The anti-hero of Chechnya and Russia has been cast off into history. Then again, Basayev had become part of history long before his death. Even in his lifetime, he was ranked alongside Djokhar Dudayev, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, and Aslan Maskhadov. This was “the last of the Mohicans,” and no successor can equal him.

Yet it should not be forgotten that even at the peak of his “popularity,” Basayev was never the leader of Chechnya. Even at the presidential election of 1997, he got just over 23% of the vote, compared to Maskhadov’s nearly 60%. Of late, Basayev’s influence had been shrinking rapidly – along with the number of his followers. There are fewer than a thousand of them left. Basayev did not determine the political process in Chechnya. He was becoming increasingly marginalized, an annoyance to the Chechens, discrediting them in the outside world.

There won’t be any fundamental changes now that he’s dead. The changes in Chechnya began long before his death. Only one thing will change: the center of gravity in Chechnya’s disagreements will shift to relations between Ramzan Kadyrov and that part of Chechen society which is not satisfied with him.

The situation in Chechnya is still transitional. The transition starting point is known (the war); yet nobody knows what’s on the horizon – conclusive peace, or an endless simmering conflict that threatens to develop into yet another “Chechen revolt, senseless and merciless.” There are a lot of provisos in the stabilization trend. Nevertheless, some sort of shift in Chechnya has occurred – that much is undeniable.

When did the very first shift happen, the shift few people noticed?

The launchpad for changes started to take shape when the word “Chechenization” was first mentioned in the Kremlin: let the Chechens sort things out amongst themselves, and we’ll support whichever Chechen is most convenient for us. Not the most obedient Chechen, at that.

There was nothing fundamentally new in this. Chechnya had been “Chechenized” before, with the Kremlin supporting Zavgayev, Labazanov, or Gantamirov. Even earlier, the same had applied to Dudayev himself. The Kremlin even supported Maskhadov from time to time; he disliked the Islamic radicals known as the Wahhabis, and was long considered to be someone the Kremlin could do business with, albeit not openly. There was something like a civil war under way in Chechnya – Chechens versus Chechens. So the conflict in Chechnya was Chechnized quite a while ago.

But President Vladimir Putin started developing his own version of Chechenization once it became abundantly clear that military force alone couldn’t resolve the conflict. More sophisticated methods were applied. Akhmad Kadyrov, formerly the chief mufti of Chechnya, was drawn over to the federal side in 2000; in June of 2000 he became the head of administration, and in October of 2003 he was made president of Chechnya.

Akhmad Kadyrov was an extraordinary person. Much more has been said about his faults than his virtues – not counting official articles or articles written to order. He was honest, saying openly that this war would continue for 20 years of more (while the federal security agencies kept promising to wind everything up “by the end of this quarter”); but it was during his time in power that fighting eased and pacification began. He greatly disliked Basayev, and couldn’t bear the Wahhabis who surrounded Basayev.

Akhmad Kadyrov died in a bomb blast on May 9, 2004, at the Dynamo stadium in Grozny. It’s still impossible to say for certain who ordered the assassination: maybe Basayev, maybe not. But Akhmad Kadyrov’s death didn’t stop Chechenization. A new president, Alu Alkhanov, was appointed in August of 2004, bolstered by Akhmad Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan Kadyrov, as deputy prime minister.

Despite everything – terrorist attacks, corruption, brutality, rigged elections – Ramzan Kadyrov has actually achieved something. This is acknowledged by even the fiercest (objective) critics of the current regime in Chechnya.

What are these achievements? For one thing, there’s no war. As analyst M. Yusupov puts it, the war “is now more often found in the rhetoric of political activists, rather than in reality.” To put it simply, the streets of Chechnya’s cities have become safer. Compensation payments may be small, but they are being paid. Reconstruction work is terribly slow, and funding is being stolen, but reconstruction is happening. Household gas supplies are back (not everywhere), and traffic lights are working. Electricity has been reconnected. To the superficial observer, night-time Grozny looks almost like a normal city – of course, unless you know that the patches of darkness are ruined buildings.

Ramzan Kadyrov wants to claim credit for all the achievements. He shouldn’t. He’d do better to keep quiet and let the people of Chechnya get a sense of where their society is heading with him in power. But Ramzan is impatient. Hence the SMS-poll that seemed to show 110 people disliking Ramzan and 177,000 liking him. Hence the staged pro-Ramzan youth rallies, and the posters of Ramzan on ruined buildings (the Turkmenbashi is better at this sort of thing), and the incident when Ramzan and his friends threw masses of hundred-dollar bills at a beauty contest winner. The impression is that somebody’s setting him up. Somebody is encouraging this hot-headed youth to act foolishly, in order to point at him later and tell his patrons: “Just look at the kind of person you have preferred.”

In psychological terms, Ramzan will miss Shamil Basayev a lot. Shamil was a worthy opponent – intelligent, brutal, personifying both the traditional blood-feud killer and “global evil,” which it’s always honorable to fight. Shamil provided Ramzan with continual self-promotion opportunities, in both Chechnya and Moscow.

Ramzan is young, and therein lies his paradoxical advantage: he’s entitled to make mistakes, so to speak. But this right should not be abused. He is capable of learning, and he’s steadily gaining political experience. Ramzan is a good mimic: sometimes an Islamic leader sacrificing camels, sometimes an elegantly-dressed technocrat. He’s improving his knowledge of the Russian language, but also paying tribute to the Islamic world.

For some Chechens, he’s still merely the son of his father; for others he’s only the luckiest of the clan chiefs, or a gangster. There are also many who believe in his rising star. Meanwhile, Ramzan himself is eagerly trying on the mantle of national leader.

This is risky.

The one-leader principle is not characteristic of Chechen society’s political culture. This fact was tested by Dudayev, Maskhadov, and Basayev. In Chechen society, power is based on a consensus among various interest groups, factions, even teips (traditional clans), although the myth about the power of teips has been dispelled. Ramzan Kadyrov’s absolutist aspirations annoy people – especially the factions that consider themselves deprived. It’s an open secret that during Chechnya’s parliamentary campaign, anyone who wanted to be elected had to approach Ramzan for approval. Those who didn’t approach him or didn’t receive approval were left with nothing.

Chechens who sided with Moscow during both wars, never supporting the separatists, let alone the Islamic radicals, are now displeased that Moscow has chosen to favor one of its former enemies – leaving them as his hostages, so to speak.

Finally, the prospect of seeing Ramzan become “the autocrat of Chechnya” is unlikely to be accepted by everyone in Moscow.

Outwardly, the Kremlin’s position seems unanimous – but it’s clear that not everyone likes Ramzan. The security and law enforcement people (siloviki) treat him with reserve. Besides, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev is jealous of Ramzan’s achievements in counter-terrorist activities. The special operation that killed Shamil Basayev did not involve Ramzan’s security forces (known as the Kadyrovites), and Ramzan sincerely regretted that. But Ramzan had personally promised to destroy Shamil – and this operation was a hint to Chechnya’s youthful prime minister that the FSB can do without his services. (In my view, this is precisely what sealed Shamil’s fate; it wasn’t a case of Putin trying to arrange a gift for himself in time for the G8 summit.)

And absolutely everyone is annoyed about Ramzan’s chosen policy course of “financial independence” – managing Chechnya’s budget as he sees fit, and, according to some outraged Muscovites, “planting his paw” on Chechnya’s oil sector.

On the one hand, Chechnya’s parliamentary election of 2005 confirmed that Ramzan Kadyrov had a solid grip on power; on the other, the very fact that this election took place shows that the Kremlin wants to make Ramzan more controllable. This requires Chechnya to have a constitutional body where federal parties are present – and their Chechen members are not only personally accountable to the “leader,” but also responsible to their party bosses. When President Putin visited Chechnya after the election, he placed special emphasis on the role of the Chechen parliament.

Moscow winced at the news of a clash between Kadyrov and Alkhanov in April; it hastened to mediate between Chechnya’s official and unofficial leaders. In effect, this was Moscow’s displeasure at Ramzan’s political “bad manners.”

Ramzan is a continual source of problems for the Kremlin, and his statements are becoming harder to ignore. He has said he’d be prepared to send a few thousand people into South Ossetia to support Eduard Kokoity; he has spoken of re-establishing Checheno-Ingushetia, and a merger with Dagestan (doesn’t this sound like Basayev’s idea of a Caucasus Caliphate?); and he’s demanding the impossible from the treaty on dividing powers between Chechnya and the federal government. Inevitably, some people are drawing parallels with the late Djokhar Dudayev.

But Ramzan is showing some self-restraint, of course. For example, only part of Grozny’s main street has been renamed in honor of his father. When the separatists were in power, Grozny was renamed Djokhar.

Putin wants to integrate Kadyrov’s Chechnya into the Russian Federation, making it one of the regions. On this path, dealing with Kadyrov alone isn’t the most far-sighted choice.

Kadyrov and Putin are hostages to each other. They can’t do without each other, but the relationship isn’t always “comfortable.” Besides, there’s the question of what will happen to Kadyrov once Putin steps down. Even if Putin stayed on for another term, the “third Putin” could change from a father to a stepfather for Ramzan. Might this be one reason why Kadyrov is so intent on becoming president of Chechnya by the end of this year?

In this regard, capturing Shamil might have become a trump card for Ramzan. But it didn’t happen. The patient Patrushev played a joker of his own.

Since the July 10 special operation, another problem has arisen for Kadyrov and Patrushev. It might give them an added incentive to cooperate, or cause a break between them. The question is this: what should be done about Basayev’s guerrillas? Their reactions to his death are likely to vary. Some will stay in the highlands and continue their Basque-style resistance – desperate fighting in a lost cause. Some will seek to join Kadyrov – but they might be too late; they should have joined him earlier. Some will approach the federal forces, where they are likely to be treated leniently – because Russia is very much in need of experienced fighting men, especially in the North Caucasus, where there’s always the threat of Abkhazian or Ossetian separatism flaring up. After all, Shamil once found a place in the first Georgian-Abkhazian war.

Some of Basayev’s guerrillas will scatter across the North Caucasus, where they might be welcomed by local Islamic radicals, who need professional fighters just as much as the federal forces do. Finally, some may well seek to test themselves in other theaters of war – Baghdad, for example. So those who say the anti-terrorist battle isn’t over are quite right. (It could last forever.)

Even before Basayev’s death, it was obvious that calls for negotiations with the separatists were completely unrealistic. And now there’s simply no one to negotiate with. The Kremlin will have to focus entirely on maintaining stability in Kadyrov’s Chechnya, creating a flexible system of checks and balances there, while not forgetting that Basayev is gone, but Ramzan still has plentiful reserves of fighting energy.

And Kadyrov has to accept the common nationwide rules of the game in politics; he won’t find it too difficult to adapt to them. The game between Chechnya and Russia must be ended. In that respect, the defeat of Basayev is indeed symbolic.

Will he be killed or not?

Chechnya was and is part of the Russian Federation. Chechen separatism was incited. It split Chechen society; most of the people didn’t want independence. Separatism was inflamed by Moscow’s failures, which demonstrated the federal government’s military weakness and political squalor. But even while it was at war, Chechnya remained part of the Federation (pensions were still being paid, and weapons were being obtained).

In principle, what’s happening in Chechnya corresponds in many respects with events in Russia as a whole. Both Chechnya and Russia have youthful, vigorous presidents, and increasing authoritarianism (more in Chechnya, less in Moscow), conditional elections, servile parliaments, and “human semi-rights.” This leads to only one conclusion: in-depth, irreversible changes will only happen in Chechnya when they happen throughout Russia.

We don’t know the whole truth about the Chechen drama. We don’t really know how this war began. Shall we ever learn the name of the person who first mentioned the idea of a “small, victorious war”? And what was Basayev really after when he went into Dagestan in 1999?

We’re left guessing. We make guesses about Ramzan: will he be killed or not? If he is killed, what will his supporters do? Rejoin the resistance in the mountains? Agree to a coalition? Would there be another civil war? Could the federal forces prevent it?

Such guessing games, cynical though they are, must be very flattering for Ramzan. After all, this only underscores the exceptional role he plays in Chechnya’s immediate future.

And what if he isn’t killed? Will he remain as eccentric as he is, or calm down?

At most, Ramzan has a good chance of being ranked alongside President Mintimer Shaimiyev of Tatarstan and President Murtaza Rakhimov of Bashkortostan. At the utmost, he might break through to the level of federal politics (including foreign policy).

In an online forum called “The Islamic World and the Future,” someone called “golotol” gave an unflattering description of how Russian society feels about the future president of Chechnya: “…We shouldn’t seriously trust people like the Kadyrovs, who change allegiances to suit their own immediate interests – ready to unite with hostile teips against Russia, or to use the Russian Army for sorting out their own intra-Ichkerian disputes.”

The overall impression is that despite general stabilization, Chechen society continues to simmer. With Basayev dead, all attention will focus on how Ramzan behaves in the absence of his chief enemy. Will he manage to reassure those in the Kremlin who have doubts about him? Can he expand his political and social support base, winning over the factions that dislike him? Might his brutality provoke another social explosion? Most experts believe Chechnya can avoid this fate. A great deal depends on Moscow, which will have to intervene repeatedly in Chechen-Chechen relations. A great deal also depends on chance.

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