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Interview: Chechnya and Russia
#57: With Miriam Heß
This is our interview format, in which we give one expert a little more space. Subscribe to The Hundred below to make sure you don’t miss any future editions.
Miriam Heß is an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and a researcher at the University of Leipzig. She’s an expert on Chechnya and terrorism. Our questions are in bold, her answers in block quotes.
What is Chechnya?
Chechnya is a North-Caucasian republic of 1.5 million inhabitants in Russia’s South. Outside of Russia, it’s mostly known for the two Chechen wars (1994-1996, 1999-2009).
Who is Ramzan Kadyrov?
Ramzan Kadyrov has been Chechen president since 2007. He is the successor of his father Akhmat Kadyrov, who was killed in a bomb blast in 2004. Since Ramzan did not have the required minimum age of 30 years at that time, Alu Alkhanov was president of the Chechen Republic from 2004-2007.
How did he take power?
The installation of Akhmat Kadyrov as the president of the Chechen Republic by Putin marked the beginning of the Kadyrov clan being the rulers of the Chechen Republic. They mostly were able to take power by switching sides during the Second Chechen War, taking Moscow’s/Putin’s side in subduing the Chechen people and any separatist movements and aspirations with them. In sum, the Kadyrov clan was able to take power by aligning with Putin who needed someone to maintain control over the republic.
How does he keep it?
Ramzan Kadyrov is known for his ruthless rule and human rights violations. He is maintaining his tight grip on power by imprisoning opponents or, if they are out of reach, by applying clan liability. Furthermore, he is using religion as an instrument to legitimize and justify his position.
How does Putin help Kadyrov?
Putin is Kadyrov’s power guarantor, he is the one person in Moscow that Kadyrov can count on as long as he is abiding by his rule. Especially during the Russian war against Ukraine, Kadyrov has criticized many senior politicians in the Russian government. Since Kadyrov is demonstratively loyal to Putin, he is able to count on the support or at least toleration of the latter.
What does Putin get out of the relationship?
The Chechen Republic has been one of Russia’s most intense and persistent domestic challenges, due to Chechen separatist movements and terrorism. The Kadyrov clan is maintaining control over the rebellious region, ensuring management and suppression of disturbances of various kinds. Furthermore, Kadyrov is a very loyal ally to Putin, because his power position is dependent on the Russian president. Kadyrov is offering not only public and political support but also contributes troops for Russia.
What role do Chechens play in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Chechens are fighting on both sides in Ukraine, for and against Russia.
Why are some Chechens fighting for Ukraine?
The fight against Russia is one of the most decisive elements for Chechens and their identification. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reminds many of them of their own conflict with Russia and the Russian invasion of Chechnya in both 1994 and 1999. For many, Ukraine’s fight against Russia is a symbolic war to continue their own fight. Pragmatically, by helping Ukraine win, they hope for recognition of their own independence. That Ukraine acknowledged Chechnya as temporarily occupied territory is a symbol of the shared interests of both parties.
What’s Kadyrov’s relationship to Yevgeny Prigozhin?
As long as Prigozhin was an ally to Putin, Kadyrov expressed his support and also admiration for Prigozhin’s Wagner group. That immediately changed when Prigozhin turned against Moscow and Putin on the weekend of June 24, 2023. On his Telegram channel, Kadyrov condemned the actions of Prigozhin and sent his troops to help the Russian army out against Prigozhin’s Wagner soldiers. In sum, Kadyrov’s view of Prigozhin is opportunistic – it depends on Prigozhin’s status and relationship to the Russian president.
What is a question you wish you were asked and what is your answer to it?
Why is Chechnya important to us and what can we learn from it?
Understanding Chechnya is key to understanding Russia. The treatment and handling of Chechnya is exemplary of Putin’s invasive and expansive politics. Importantly, the way he brought Chechen separatist movements under control by installing Kadyrov tells us something about the way he would rule Ukraine if he were to succeed. As an Islamic politician, Kadyrov can also help Putin to build bridges between Russia and the Middle East – especially in Saudi-Arabia. Putin can bring authoritarian rule and “skepticism” towards democracy to the game, his installment of a Muslim leader demonstrates his respect (or at least acknowledgement) of Islam and Russia’s Muslim population.
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