Aleksandre Kvakhadze, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
On 15 September Ramzan Kadyrov expressed his anger against Akhmed Zakaev – a former prime minister of Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (hereafter: Ichkeria) and active advocate of Chechnya’s secession from Russian Federation. Kadyrov’s speech was a response to Zakaev’s critical statement’s on Kadyrov’s father, Akhmat Kadyrov, who was appointed by Russian authorities as the president Chechen Republic after Russian military takeover of the republic. As Kadyrov noted: “Even if you only once will mention my father’s name, you’ll see what will happen to you. Regardless of the consequences, I will burn you alive in the fire.” Later, Zakaev’s relatives in Chechnya after intimidation by Kadyrov’s security apparatus, were forced to release the video denouncing and condemning Zakaev. Several weeks later, Zakaev’s representative in Germany, a former female fighter Rubati Mitsaeva released the video addressed to Kadyrov asking him a permission to return to Chechnya. All those events demonstrate that Kadyrov is likely to implement more aggressive measures against the active supporters of Ichkeria.
During the first and second Chechen wars, the Chechen resistance fought against Russian armed forces under the banner of Ichkeria. Hence, Russian authorities considered Ichkeria as a major military adversary. Despite the schism between the secular and Islamic fractions among Chechen insurgency, the concept of Chechen Republic Ichkeria remained unchallenged until 2007. In 2007 the leader of Chechen militants and president of Ichkeria, Doku Umarov abolished Ichkeria and declared Imarat Kavkaz – a multi-ethnic jihadi organisation aiming to establish sharia-governed state in the North Caucasus between Black and Caspian seas. Umarov’s decision caused the split between the supporters of Chechnya’s independence. Until recently, Kadyrov’s regime alongside with Russian security services were mostly targeting Chechen jihadis and their supports, while the supporters of Ichkeria were usually ignored. In late 2010s there were several failed attempts of Kadyrov to reconcile the high-ranking Ichkeria supporters in Europe and bring them back to Chechnya. There was a difference in rhetoric as well. While Kadyrov and his media was mostly dehumanising the jihadis and referring them as Sheytans (devils), the supporters of Ichkeria were mostly portrayed as old-fashioned and naïve. Nowadays, the supporters of Ichkeria represent several competing groups claiming to be the legitimate successors of Ichkeria and government in exile.
Given the recent Kadyrov’s actions, what led Kadyrov to change his attitude towards Ichkeria and its supporters and make them as a main target? There are several reasons contributed to that process. Firstly, Kadyrov’s regime desperately needs an external enemy. As long as all jihadi groups in Chechnya (Imarat Kavkaz, ISIS) have either been destroyed or migrated to Syrian conflict, functional jihadi jamaats no longer exist in Chechnya. Hence, jihadis needed to be replaced by another external enemy. Secondly, the activisation of Chechen bloggers, in most cases the supporters of Ichkeria, could also have caused the anger from Kadyrov. For instance, the prominent Chechen bloggers such as Tumso Abdurakhmanov glorify idea of an independent Ichkeria, and shares scepticism over the concept of Imarat Kavkaz and other jihadi state-building projects. Thirdly, following the collapse of Imarat Kavkaz and Russian-speaking fraction of ISIS, many of their former sympathisers nowadays associate themselves with Ichkeria, in order to avoid being labelled as terrorists or radicals. Hence, they still remain the fierce opponents of Kadyrov. And finally, unlike the Syrian conflict, the Chechen groups dislocated in Ukraine, Donbas region, are using the symbolics of Ichkeria against the pro-Russian separatist groups in Donbas. Therefore, it raises concern not only among Kadyrov’s regime, but also among Russian authorities.
The tactics used by Kadyrov against the active supporters of Ichkeria could include the targeted assassination, intimidation and threatening of their relatives residing in Chechnya, controlling Chechen social media accounts and active usage of so-called trolls and proxy bloggers. However, Kadyrov is likely to face the difficulties in terms of confronting the concept of independent Ichkeria. As long as ISIS and Imarat Kavkaz have not been widely accepted by Chechens in Chechnya and abroad alike, Kadyrov could easily demonise and discredit jihadi state-building projects of any kind. Contrariwise, Ichkeria has a significant symbolic role in the contemporary history of Chechen people and remains the first attempt of building a Chechen nation-state. Furthermore, the whole generation of Chechens have fought under the banner of Ichkeria two wars against Russia, including Kadyrov’s father, Ahmad Kadyrov prior to his defection.
In conclusion, the concept of Ichkeria has a potential to compete with Kadyrov’s political ideology to win hearts and minds of Chechens. Despite the large-scale oppression in Chechnya, the idea of Chechen independence remains popular among ordinary Chechens. Hence, Kadyrov will put an extra effort to dehumanise the concept of Ichkeria and intimidate its active advocates.