Monday, September 10, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Playing the Chechen Card for 2008

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 10 – Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said in an interview published today that his greatest fear at present is that Russian politicians could try to play “the Chechen card” in the run-up to parliamentary elections there later this year and the Russian presidential elections in 2008.
But others are fearful that Moscow may play “the Chechen card” in another way, exporting Kadyrov’s radically authoritarian approach to other republics in the North Caucasus to stabilize the situation in them, a strategy almost certain to backfire both there and in the Russian Federation as a whole.
In a wide-ranging interview featured in today’s “Komsomol’skaya pravda,” Kadyrov said his approach in Chechnya – toughness against those he described as “bandits” and support for Islam – not only was working but in principle also could work elsewhere in the Caucasus (
Nonetheless, he refused to say that he was specifically advocating a similar combination of tactics to other leaders in the region, modestly suggesting that he is extremely young and that many of them are far older and with much greater experience – even if he is currently having more success.
In other comments, Kadyrov said that the war in Chechnya began “with religion and one can end it with religion,” that Boris Berezovskiy was behind the current wave of instability in Ingushetia, and that he continues to believe that Vladimir Putin should remain in office.
His most intriguing comment, however, concerned his fears that Russian politicians will use “the Chechen card” in the upcoming elections. On the one hand, that is an implicit criticism of Putin himself who shamelessly used the Chechen issue during his first presidential race.
And on the other, this statement is a clear indication that the situation in Chechnya itself may not be as stable as Kadyrov and Moscow regularly claim. Indeed, for him to worry about what Russian politicians do suggests that the situation while superficially calm may in fact remain extremely fragile.
Given Kadyrov’s relative success both in keeping things nominally calm in his own republic and extracting concessions of various kinds from the Kremlin, it is perhaps not surprising that some in other republics of the North Caucasus wish they had an equivalent figure ruling over them.
A policeman in a region near Ingushetia told a visiting journalist last week that he wished that someone would loan them a Kadyrov for a few months to put things right, noting that “our misfortune is that we do not have a leader like Kadyrov”who is not afraid of taking responsibility for the situation (
But commentator Mikhail Pirogovskiy has warned against any plans to extend the Chechen model to other republics. Not only is the Kadyrov regime noxious in its own terms, he said, but also trying to impose on other republics could backfire against anyone who attempted to do so (
First of all, there simply aren’t any Kadyrov types readily available elsewhere, and attempting to install leaders as young as the Chechen president in most of the other North Caucasus republics could trigger even more instability rather than promote the quiescence Moscow seeks.
Second, Pirogovskiy continues, Chechnya is mono-ethnic. Consequently, having a Chechen as leader is fine. But most of the other North Caucasus republics are multi-ethnic, and selecting a member of any one group, especially a young member, could undermine public order.
And third, were Moscow to engineer the kind of crackdown Kadyrov has in Chechnya across the entire North Caucasus, it is entirely possible that the terrorists would turn their attention away from their home republic to the Russian “metropole,” a development that he suggests would be “worst of all.”
For all those reasons, the “Chechen card” is unlikely to be played this way at least across the board, something that only increases the likelihood that some in the Russian political elite will try to play it in the other way, an effort that may win them votes but that won’t be itself bring peace to that troubled region.

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