Sunday, September 23, 2018

Three Chechen Challenges to Moscow’s Control of the North Caucasus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 23 – The Kremlin’s massive payments to Ramzan Kadyrov and the latter’s oft-expressed loyalty to Vladimir Putin as well as the Chechen leader’s repressive policies within his republic have kept Chechnya relatively quiet in recent months and led many to assume that it is no longer a problem for Moscow.

            But three stories this weekend underscore the fact that however pacified Chechnya may appear to be, Kadyrov’s rule and Putin’s deference to him carry with it serious problems for Moscow in controlling that republic and other regions in the North Caucasus whose leaders often view what Kadyrov is doing as an indication of what they can try as well.

             The first of these challenges to Moscow’s control is Kadyrov’s suggestion that borders with at least two of Chechnya’s neighbors be changed and his establishment of a commission to draw up the correct borders of Chechnya in what appears to be an entirely unilateral way (

                As regional specialist Anton Chablin points out, any suggestion that existing borders be changed “instantly becomes an occasion for concern” because if one border is changed, all borders become subject to discussion. The most serious of Chechnya’s claims and actions about borders concerns Ingushetia, with which it has no border agreement since the two split in 1992.

            That situation has been exacerbated not only by the creation of the commission but also by an earlier law unilaterally declaring part of Ingushetia to be Chechen and by moves this summer to build Chechen roads into areas that Ingushetia claims. (For background, see

                Chechnya under Kadyrov also has border disputes with Daghestan. Since at least May 2013, Chablin notes, the two republics have claimed as their own the waters of a mountain lake. So far they have not come to blows, but Kadyrov’s policies regarding Chechen claims make that an increasingly live possibility.

            Dmitry Yefremov, who for many years worked on Chechen state television, tells Chablin that “the problem of borders in the North Caucasus Federal District is of course a destabilizing factor,” one that could lead to explosions if one or another republic leader attempted to use them for political goals – as Kadyrov appears to be doing.

            To avoid that, Yefremov proposes moving to make these administrative lines “nominal” borders rather than “political” ones; but that idea is likely to be as offensive to at least some in the North Caucasus republics as any proposal to change the borders in favor of one or another side.

            The second of these challenges involves the behavior of younger Chechens especially beyond the borders of their native republic. According to Adani Umayev, a Chechen elder, many young Chechens, being “children of war” whose psychological balance has been “destroyed,” ignore the law and customs as well (

                Instead, they feel that they can do anything they can get away and display contempt for law which as he notes “does not always defend our rights and interests.”  Such Chechens offend not only Russians but non-Russians in the North Caucasus and contribute to a general rise in tensions throughout the region. 

            And the third challenge, perhaps the most serious if not the most immediate of the three, is rooted in the fact that Chechnya today is “unique in the sense that its people live simultaneously according to several laws – “civil Russian law, shariat, adat (customary law), and partially by ‘understandings’”(

                According to Radio Svoboda’s Ruslan Isayev, “relations with the state as a rule are regulated with the help of civic laws. Relations among Chechens, be they family or financial issues, are taken up according to Islamic law, the shariat. But before reaching shariat courts, many cases pass through the elders who consider them according to Chechen customary law (adat).”  And some disputes are solved directly “’according to honor and justice.’”

            The system works relatively well with one major exception: it sends a signal to the Chechens that their laws are every bit as important as civil Russian law, a lesson that Moscow can’t want them or anyone else in the North Caucasus to learn as that sense alone can be a driver of secessionist attitudes. 

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