In Chechnya, the wedding of a 17-year old girl and a middle-aged policeman has put centre-periphery relations and the growing divergence of regional arrangements in Chechnya and the rest of the Russian Federation in the spotlight.
On 30 April, Novaya Gazeta published an article by investigative journalist Elena Milashina about the intentions of a high-ranking policeman – the already married head of the Nozhai-Yurt District Interior Ministry - to wed the girl against her will. The report said that the prospective bride’s family had acquiesced under the threat of violence.
It is likely that the policeman’s ties to Kadyrov’s security services prompted the Chechen leader to intervene on his behalf. Although the wedding conveyed the impression that it was imposed by the policeman through the use of administrative resources and coercive structures of power, two resulting legal implications were at the centre of public attention. Firstly, the fact that the girl, being 17 years of age, was too young to wed: although underage marriage is allowed under Russian legislation in special circumstances, no such circumstances were referred to in this case. Secondly, if reports about the policeman’s second wife were true, the union would amount to bigamy, illegal in the Russian Federation. Neither of these two issues was addressed by the Chechen or the Russian authorities who had proceeded to officially comment on the case. Public criticism of Kadyrov’s apparent disregard for federal laws consequently grew, underpinned by frequent references to his autocratic style of rule, colloquially known as “Ramzan says”.
The perceived incompatibility of Kadyrov’s actions with federal laws was also given increased attention because of his recent disputes with the FSB. In April, Kadyrov refused to hand over several close associates suspected of having played a role in the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Then, in May, Kadyrov posted a message on Instagram in which he appeared to instruct his leading security officers to shoot federal agents entering Chechnya, after the killing of a suspect in Chechnya by federal forces from Stavropol. These instances have contributed to his public image as a regional leader increasingly ‘out of control’, prompting questions about the extent to which the Chechen Republic is, in fact, politically integrated into the Russian Federation.
Two brutal wars and the rise of Islamic extremism in the region have made Chechnya a ‘special case’ as a federal subject, allowing it to circumvent the usual constraints placed by the centre on its counterparts. This allowed Kadyrov to assert his political strength to a much greater degree than was perhaps anticipated by Moscow. Kadyrov coopted local elites, stabilised social and economic areas of life, and ruled absolutely through his violent security services. For his displays of loyalty to the centre, as well as for almost completely eradicating the Islamic insurgency in Chechnya, the Kremlin tolerates Kadyrov’s excesses: he is less accountable for his actions than any other regional leader. This policy of “Chechenisation” has been seen by some as representing a type of “soft exit” for Chechnya from the Russian Federation.
For now, however, Moscow prefers Kadyrov’s ‘order’ to the chaos that would ensue were he to be taken out. This is for two reasons.
Firstly, Kadyrov fulfills the Kremlin’s contract assignment - he both ensures order and stability in his republic and successfully delivers votes to the political regime in the centre using the considerable administrative, economic, and other resources at his disposal.
Secondly, the Kremlin still does not know how to rule the North Caucasus: it cannot navigate the diverse local ethnic and clan systems of power, evidenced by its display of more officious tendencies with elites in the North Caucasus than in ethnically Russian regions. It is for this reason the Kremlin generally prefers to appoint ‘outsiders’ to head the republics, in particular men socialized into federal structures, with fewer local fidelities. The 2013 appointments of Ramazan Abdulatipov - former Minister of Nationalities Policy and former member of the Federation Council - as head of the Republic of Dagestan and Yury Kokov - a career Ministry of Interior officer - as head of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria reflect Kremlin policy priorities in the region. As such, the Kremlin tries to contain and manage the region’s public political arenas, arguably at the peril of ignoring the hidden arenas of systemic ethnic and clan patronage.
Although Kadyrov is not an outsider, his absolute power in Chechnya has allowed him to implicitly renegotiate the federal contract offered by Putin to regional elites. It is for this reason that he is able to publicly threaten federal forces, praise the person formally charged for murdering Nemtsov, and arrange a polygamous marriage with an underage girl, with impunity.
This, however, raises the question about how this particular “parade of sovereignty” affects the future of the Russian federal model. As Russia itself is ruled not by rule of law but by rule of personality, any change in leadership in Chechnya (or Moscow) would expose the power vertical to conflict at the local level, which could prove disastrous in what remains Russia's most militarised region. Without developing a functioning federal system, centre-periphery relations remain fundamentally unpredictable - with the post-Soviet Russian elite remaining woefully unprepared for the potential consequences.