Staunton, January 26 – In the 1990s, many Russians looked to Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus as the kind of leader they would like to have in place of the weak Boris Yeltsin, Aleksandr Baunov says. Today, many of these same Russians now look to Ramzan Kadyrov as the kind of leader who they would like to see in place of the indecisive Putin.
And that gives the Chechen leader a kind of power that has so far checkmated the Russian government which would like Chechnya to become a federal subject like any other and who do not believe that the country benefits now as it did in the past from Kadyrov’s personal loyalty to Vladimir Putin (meduza.io/feature/2016/01/26/peredovik-gosstroitelstva).
“The desire that Chechnya be subordinated not only to Putin personally via a feudal oath of loyalty but also to ‘the collective Putin,’ the bureaucratic and administrative machine, arose long ago,” Baunov says; but “it sharped after the murder of Boris Nemtsov. To be subordinate to the bureaucratic collective would mean that Chechnya would become just like all others.
Achieving that, which would likely require the removal of Kadyrov, is “not so hopeless” as many think, Baunov says. Chechnya has been largely at peace for a decade, and that in and of itself has “reduced the exclusive importance of Kadyrov.” Consequently, “the task of his standardization as a regional lead is not beyond being fulfilled.”
But, and this is the Moscow Carnegie Center analyst’s main point, “the waning of the objective irreplaceability of Ramzan Kadyrov at the regional level suddenly has been balanced by the growth of his all-national importance.”
Kadyrov’s “Stalinist” vocabulary and the threats it contains “have pleased numerous supporters of a more decisive regime and have filled a gap” for many Russians. For them, at last, there is again “someone who calls things by their own names.” And that makes him a power to be reckoned with.
In many respects, Kadyrov’s by his statements this month has “restored the system in which Russian existed in the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s,” when Russians looked to Lukashenka as the man “who had decided to speak and do” what they would like their own government to do.
Lukashenka was thus “a critical alternative to Yeltsin and for quite a long time a model for the beginning Putin.” The Belarusian leader behaved as if the Soviet Union had never ended, and that made him popular. Indeed, some Russians hoped he would come to Moscow and replace Yeltsin.
But in recent years, Lukashenka has lost that aura for Russians. Not only has he cozied up with the West even as Moscow is paying for his regime, but Russians finally saw one aspect of his rule as disqualifying him for the top Russian job: If Lukashenka is “such a patriot, then why didn’t he combine his non-state with Russia?”
The demise of Lukashenka as a favored alternative left a “vacant place” in the minds of Russia, that occupied by someone who could call things by their own names and act really tough and who could be imagined as the top leader, something few Russians could imagine emerging from elections, who would represent “a continuation of the Soviet tradition.”
In Kadyrov, Russians found just the person to fill this vacancy, Baunov says. And the Chechen leader was even more attractive because he did not have the main and fatal shortcoming of Lukashenka: his republic is already part of the Russian Federation and he is already now a patriot of Russia.”
“In Russia there is always a demand for words which the central authorities aren’t prepared to speak and actions which they aren’t prepared to take,” the Carnegie Moscow Center scholar says. Such people are quite prepared to talk about a new 1937. Indeed, in their view, Baunov says, there is no reason not to act in that way.
What they believe is that failure to say things like that and take actions in that direction reflects a lack of political will or “direct sabotage in the highest echelons” of power, Baunov says. Kadyrov is quite prepared to say these things, and many Russians believe that he is quite prepared to act on them as well.
Kadyrov’s constant declarations of loyalty to Putin are probably quite sincere, but that in and of itself does not change the political calculus given that Kadyrov is caught between the popularity he has with such hardliners and the threat he poses to the current incumbent of the Kremlin, a threat the latter is unlikely to tolerate for long.
At the same time, Putin knows very well that many Russians now view Kadyrov as a brighter and more consistent version of himself – and recognizes that in the current crisis, it may be useful to keep such a person around as a sounding board and lightning rod rather than take the risks involve in removing him.