Opponents of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov — both real and imagined — have been mowed down like grass in recent years. The victims include Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Chechen commander Movladi Baisarov, the brothers Ruslan and Sulim Yamadayev, former Kadyrov bodyguard Umar Israilov and now human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. The murders have taken place all over the world: in Grozny, Moscow, Vienna and Dubai. At the same time, a host of prominent Chechen expatriates have voiced support for Kadyrov and his regime. Even as the Kremlin continues to regularly allocate huge sums from the federal budget to finance Chechnya despite the economic crisis, Kadyrov squeezes Kremlin loyalists out of his domain, becoming in the process an absolute dictator of the republic — and now, in part, of Ingushetia as well. Kadyrov commands a personal army that largely consists of former insurgents and special forces that carry out fully official reprisal missions in Chechnya, Moscow and, less officially for now, in other countries.

For a long time, Kadyrov failed to exercise complete control over Chechen counterterrorism operations and the actions of the federal law enforcement agencies connected with them. The Chechen law enforcement agencies also did not monitor violations committed by the federal forces, and vice versa. What’s more, Memorial — the only independent organization providing the world community with reliable information about events in that part of the Caucasus — is leaving Chechnya.
On Kadyrov’s list of unfulfilled demands to Moscow is a completely independent budget giving him control over all proceeds from resource extraction and oil refinement as well as more autonomy in carrying out external relations — specifically, the right to build an international airport and set up his own customs service. The process to receive all that during the crisis might take anywhere from a few months to a year. Chechnya then would be transformed from a de facto independent state associated with Russia into a de jure independent state that could request and — after the precedent of last year’s Russia-Georgia war — receive recognition of its independence from other countries. Kadyrov might choose not to request such recognition, pointing instead to his “good behavior” and his nominal demonstration of loyalty to Moscow to gain additional concessions from the Kremlin. That is essentially what has been happening all along, with then-President Vladimir Putin instituting a policy of appeasing Kadyrov with money and power and giving him all the trappings of real authority. The result is that the territorial reach of Kadyrov’s authority has now spread into Ingushetia, eliminating all competition and obstacles in the way. At the same time, Moscow has fewer carrots to offer, with less money in its coffers and few powers left to grant Kadyrov. What’s next? All that remains is for Kadyrov to further consolidate his power by either signing a agreement with Moscow on the delineation of powers after the model of Tatarstan — only with far greater powers in Chechnya’s case — or for Kadyrov to pursue the same goal without Moscow’s consent.
The economic and political crisis into which Russia has fallen, largely because of its own errant policies, especially in relation to the Caucasus, provides Kadyrov with additional maneuvering room and restricts Moscow’s options.
At some point, Moscow will inevitably be forced to reconsider Putin’s policy of appeasing Chechnya, and that time might come sooner rather than later.
This comment first appeared in The Moscow Times