The mass murder of Muslims in Myanmar has prompted Chechnya’s dictatorial President Ramzan Kadyrov to take a rare political stance at odds with the Kremlin, revealing a shaky balance of power within Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya minority has not only infuriated citizens of Pakistan and Indonesia. It has led to an unprecedented set of protests by Muslims in Russia itself—most notably in Moscow.
More than five hundred Muslims protested before the Myanmar Embassy in the center of Moscow on Sunday. The next day, tens of thousands came out to the center of Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, with Kadyrov delivering a speech full of veiled threats aimed at Moscow. Chechen authorities claim a million people were out on the streets.
Before the protests, Kadyrov live-streamed commentary on the situation to his Instagram account, saying:
If Russia keeps supporting the shaytan that commits these crimes, I am against the Russian position. Because I have my own vision, my own position.
He added that he’d been asked multiple times to send Chechen troops to Myanmar, but said he didn’t have the authority to do so.
Russian journalists reporting from both Grozny and Moscow found that most of the protesters didn’t know much about Myanmar—most couldn’t identify it on a map—but rather were answering Kadyrov’s call. But while mass rallies of Muslims are relatively common in Grozny—in January 2015, over 700,000 Chechens protested against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after a terror attack at its offices in Paris—seeing hundreds of protesters gather in Russia’s capital is something new.
And what was more striking than the mobilization of protesters itself was that they remained unmolested by Russian police—as if the protests were happening in a normal liberal democracy, not Russia. Thousands of people were arrested during the large (and legally authorized) anti-corruption rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg in March. Recently, police even arrested a lone protester standing in Red Square holding a plain white piece of paper in his hands. But hundreds of people convening in the center of Moscow shouting “Allahu Akbar!” and “Buddhists are terrorists!”—protesting without an official permit but at the invitation of Ramzan Kadyrov—failed to rouse the police to action.
Kadyrov has built what amounts to his own sovereign state inside Russia. Chechnya has its own laws (mostly sharia-inspired) and the rest of the country has more or less accepted that reality as the cost of having peace in the restive and fractious Muslim region. But the protest by Kadyrov’s people in the center of Moscow has not only raised the hackles of Russia’s opposition, but also prompted the most pro-Kremlin (and the most popular) newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda to speak up. The newspaper’s well-known columnist, Aleksandr Kots, wrote that “this was doubtless not just a protest done out of solidarity with the oppressed religious minority in Myanmar. It was a test of power that demonstrated the mobility and cohesiveness of a politicized Islam—a new phenomenon not seen before [in Russia].” We have “seen all this before, both in Egypt and in Libya, where crowds were manipulated by puppet-masters of political Islam,” he added, calling on Russian security services to investigate who exactly had organized these protests in private groups on social media. “These are the very familiar techniques of the Arab Spring, perhaps being tested in Russia,” Kots warned. “A simple cause is enough to get a crowd of bearded men into the center of Moscow. And through prayer, they quickly shift from a simple expression of solidarity to political demands, including towards Russian authorities.” He concluded by asking rhetorically whether Kadyrov’s position on Myanmar is consistent with the Kremlin’s expectations of what a patriot should think. (Kadyrov rarely misses an opportunity to proclaim his personal loyalty to Putin, and frequently goes out of his way to call himself a great Russian patriot.)
Yesterday evening, Putin seemed to address Kots’s concerns, at least on the matter of patriotism. Answering questions at a BRICS summit in China, he said that every person is entitled to their own private opinions, regardless of their official position.
Earlier this week, I spoke with a former Chechen citizen who witnessed both Chechen wars, lost several siblings, and subsequently had to flee Russia due to his opposition to the Kadyrov regime. He told me that while Kadyrov has a long track record of successfully exploiting existing resentments within Russia’s Muslim community, this is something new. While many people came to both protests (in Moscow and in Grozny) as a matter of conscience, the protests can’t be seen as anything other than a show of strength by Kadyrov. Kadyrov has become a real player in Russian politics—a man capable of making Putin defer him. Kadyrov is sending a clear signal to the Kremlin, knowing full well its dependence on him to keep Chechnya subjugated. His comments about his own opinion are a signal to Russia’s Muslims, who already harbor doubts about living contentedly in the Russian Federation.
As for the lack of response by the police, the Chechen exile told me he thought that fear was one factor. Breaking up a demonstration of young, often well-trained Chechen toughs is completely different from breaking up a gathering of urban Russian youths or intellectuals. Another likely factor, he said, was the chain of command: Putin was in China when the protests occurred, and no one dared to make a decision that could have put the Kremlin on a collision course with Kadyrov.
For his part, opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky largely agrees. He wrote on Facebook that the “meekness and hesitation displayed by the police in response to the well-organized Muslim community that showed up to an unauthorized protest in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Moscow” tells us that ”there is no such thing as the ‘Power Vertical‘ in Russia” and that “Putin’s vassals feel more and more independent.”
Maxim Dbar, a long-time ally and current press secretary of Khodorkovsky who now works at Open Russia in London, linked Kadyrov’s behavior more explicitly to politics. “In the late 1990s through the early 2000s, every governor’s election or appointment was always preceded by a paroxysm of nationalism,” he wrote on his Facebook page. The reason for this was always the same: to send the Kremlin a signal that only the current serving governor can control and contain these excesses of nationalism, and that the Kremlin had better not change anything in the region. Today this is still going on, Dbar says, except that it is happening at the federal level, in Moscow, and accompanies not the governors’ but the presidential elections. “Kadyrov is clearly saying that he is the only one who can contain the excessive irruption of religious ecstasy among Russia’s Muslims, who are feared by both the police and Russia’s National Guards.”
While Ramzan Kadyrov has strengthened his hand over the years and made Vladimir Putin politically dependent on him by guaranteeing order in Chechnya, he himself has also always been dependent on Putin. Kadyrov has built up a formidable personal army in Chechnya, in part financed by draconian additional taxes levied on Chechnya’s citizens. But Chechnya also receives billions of rubles of subsidies from the Kremlin every year—money that helps Kadyrov live like a king and pay his men handsomely. This is an arrangement that many in the Kremlin tolerate but are not happy about.
The fact that Kadyrov has chosen to demonstrate his power so bluntly now suggests that he feels he needs to do so. One possibility is that he is worried that Putin will decide not to run for President next year. Six more years of Putin would mean six more years of the easy life for the Chechen dictator. The subsidies from the Russian federal budget would keep coming.
Another possibility is that Kadyrov is trying to influence Putin’s decision on who might succeed him as the next President of Russia, be it next year or in six. There have been signs recently of Putin trying to change the dynamic with his Chechen protégé. This past July, Putin appointed Viktor Zolotov, the head of the National Guard, to lead counter-terrorism efforts in the North Caucasus—a move that was seen as the first step toward getting Kadyrov’s personal army under a degree of federal control. Before then, the FSB’s Second Service (its counter-terrorism division) had been the only federal agency that could enter Chechnya at will; all other law enforcement agencies had limited authority to operate in Kadyrov’s fiefdom. (For instance, after Boris Nemtsov was murdered in Moscow in 2015, attorneys from Russia’s Investigative Committee were blocked from entering Chechnya to interrogate Ruslan Geremeev, one of the most important suspects in the case and a close ally of Kadyrov. Geremeev subsequently fled to Dubai, where Kadyrov is said to have his own personal security and border control detail at the airport.) Zolotov’s 400,000-strong National Guard now supposedly has a free hand in Chechnya. But as the exiled Chechen I spoke with puts it, even 400,000 highly trained troops would have trouble reining in Kadyrov without kicking off a war.
Whatever the ultimate rationale for Kadyrov’s Moscow gambit, it portends serious political instability for Russia. Vladimir Putin’s initial promise to bring stability to the Caucasus after the two brutal wars required making a Faustian bargain with a Chechen devil. He may have thought he had successfully sealed the Pandora’s box of Islamic radicalism by working with Kadyrov. Instead, he may well have made Russia itself into a tinderbox.