Monday, September 23, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Could Surkov Replace Kadyrov – an Almaaty 1986 All Over Again?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 24 – Ramzan’s Kadyrov’s increasingly independent approach as head of Chechnya and Vladislav Surkov’s return as an aide to President Vladimir Putin with responsibilities for the North Caucasus in the Kremlin has sparked speculation that Surkov might replace Kadyrov in order to demonstrate Moscow’s power and bring Grozny to heal.

            But such a step is highly unlikely not only because of Surkov’s style – he is more a gray cardinal than a public politician – but also because such a purge of a non-Russian leader would recall for many Mikhail Gorbachev’s clumsy replacement of Dinmukhamed Kunayev as first secretary of the Kazakhstan SSR in December 1986.

            The Soviet president took this step because he said he could not find a reliable ethnic Kazakh but that claim was immediately shown to be false when Moscow named an ethnic Kazakh to be number two after riots in the streets of the then-capital of that republic, riots that reflected both ethnic and class divides.

            The Russian Gorbachev had installed, Gennady Kolbin who had been Moscow’s watcher as number two in the Georgian SSR earlier, was soon gone and replaced by his Kazakh number two as Moscow struggled to control the situation.  But this demonstration of Moscow’s inability to make unilateral decisions on ethnic issues helped accelerate the disintegration of the USSR.

            Nonetheless in the murky world of high Kremlin politics and Moscow’s troubled relations with Chechnya almost any speculation even of a kind that appears impossible is worth examining because of the light it possibly throws on developments about which little or nothing is known for sure.

            In a 1400-word essay posted on on Saturday, Maksim Malofeyev points out that Surkov has a record of talking Kadyrov out of steps that would have sparked controversy: In 2004, the Moscow official convinced Kadyrov that it would be a bad idea to rename Grozny Akhmat-kala after the latter’s father (

            But that retreat by Kadyrov has not led him to be more cautious. In 2010, for example, he refused to mark the 140th anniversary of the founding of Grozny by Russian forces; he has staked out a position for himself as defenders of ethnic Chechens across Russia; and he has pushed for the Grozny mosque to be the symbol of Russia.

            Consequently, however slavishly loyal Kadyrov has been to Putin, the Chechen leader has managed to offend many Russians and possibly the Russian president himself by actions that Moscow would not have tolerated in the case of any other non-Russian or Russian regional leader.

            Malofeyev suggests that the Kremlin might have been willing to overlook Kadyrov’s expansive behavior had he kept it within the bounds of Chechnya and the Chechens, but the Grozny leader has not: He has attacked the head of Rosneft and the head of Ingushetia, he has demanded more money from the center, and “before the Olympiad and the 150th anniversary of the end of the Caucasus War,” he has erected a statue to Chechens who resisted Russia then.

            Many in Moscow undoubtedly feel that Kadyrov should be removed, and some, Malofeyev suggests, may see Surkov as a good candidate.  “Surkov has publically declared that he is proud that he can be called Ramzan’s brother,” and Kadyrov in turn said that Surkov could “take his place” after the latter lost his earlier Kremlin post.

But would Grozny be “too small a post for Surkov?” Perhaps not because already the status of head of Chechnya is higher than that of the presidential plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus and because Chechnya is the last fragment of [Surkov’s] political model – the classic manifestation of sovereign democracy in action.”

The installation of Surkov in place of Kadyrov, Malofeyev, would also have the benefit of reassuring at least some of Kadyrov’s men that they would not be pushed out. In fact, at least some of them would view Surkov as a guarantor of “the status quo.”  But how long that would last is anyone’s guess.

Surkov certainly wouldn’t be satisfied with just Chechnya, however. He would likely use such a post to promote the regional amalgamation plan with which he has been associated and press for the reunification of Chechnya and Ingushetia “or more precisely the Anschluss of the latter.”

The current Kremlin aide would likely want that to happen by 2018, a date which corresponds to the next Russian presidential election. Surkov could thus ensure that the North Caucasus would vote for Putin, and Putin in turn could then bring Surkov back in “triumph” to Moscow, Malofeyev continues.

But the Russian analyst acknowledges there are problems: Surkov is a Chechen but a Chechen who has converted to Russian Orthodoxy.  That alone would offend many Chechens just as having an ethnic Russian who has converted to Islam become “the mayor of Moscow or the governor of Ivanovo Oblast.”

As for Kadyrov, Malofeyev says, “alas, the moor has done his work” and can go, possibly as Russian representative to the Organization for Islamic Cooperation or to some anti-terrorist position or to the post of an advisor of the Russian president on Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Kadyrov would likely prefer the first because he could live in one of his palaces and would be beyond the reach of Russian law enforcement.  But of course, in this scenario of his replacement by Surkov, he would unlikely have a choice. More important, however, is something else: does Moscow really have a choice on who will run Chechnya? Or have things gotten to the point that any change would eliminate many of its remaining levers of control?

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