About a year ago my colleague Alex Fisher and I wrote about Russia’s homegrown terrorism problem. In our article we argued that if the two Chechen wars of the 1990s did not actually create the terrorism problem in the Russian North Caucasus, they certainly helped worsen things a great deal. The inhumane tactics used by the Russian government and its cronies in Chechnya to hunt down rebels left the North Caucasus mountains infested with terrorist groups in hiding. The self-declared “Islamic State of the Caucasus Emirate” is responsible for countless terrorist attacks in many Russian towns including, but not limited to, Grozny. The moral of our story was that Chechnya (as well as Dagestan) is Russia’s ticking bomb. Currently it is stable, but entirely unpredictable. Putin has poured a lot of money into achieving this seemingly stable state in Chechnya. He has heavily invested in local actors who carry out his zero tolerance policy when it comes to dealing with terrorists in Russia. One such noteworthy local actor is Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya who has quickly risen to international fame for many reasons, foremost of them being his close relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Now, with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Chechnya and the North (and even the South) Caucasus in general have been receiving renewed international attention. There have been continuous reports of foreign fighters pouring out of the region to join ISIS (as of February 2015 there were approximately 1700 Russian nationals fighting alongside ISIS). Additionally, Putin’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere have drawn a great deal of attention to Russia itself. For example, when the world became outraged over the news of Boris Nemtsov’s murder in Moscow, Kadyrov made headlines as many had connected the murder to his terrorist-fighting elite paramilitary security forces “Kadyrovtsy.” An article by The Moscow Times argued that Putin had overly spoiled Kadyrov and was not exactly in full control of him anymore. There have also been reports that Kadyrov has risen to higher ranks within Putin’s team and may eventually end up at the top of the Russian government.
For those of us who closely observe the region, following the Chechnya news has been made somewhat amusing thanks to Kadyrov’s excellent social media skills. He happens to be an avid Twitter and Instagram user, frequently making media headlines across the world with his posts. For example, quite often he posts pictures of Putin on Instagram declaring his love and allegiance to him. This past winter he wrote that he was willing to die for Putin.
However, this past weekend was especially eventful for Kadyrov on social media. He used his Instagram account to comment on two major events: a controversial wedding in Chechnya and the Tsarnaev sentencing.
Earlier this month Kadyrov received scrutiny for approving of and participating in a wedding of one of the members of his administration, who married a 17 year old–reportedly against her will. The wedding video shows a grim bride, barely saying “yes” to marrying the man during the civil ceremony. Later she is seen standing aside, not taking part in, the wedding celebrations where the honorable guest, Mr. Kadyrov, joyfully dances Lezginka with other guests. The Daily Beast reports that this is the second wife for the 47 year-old Nazhuda Guchigov, who has children older than his 17 year-old bride Louisa. Moreover, there were stories reporting that the bride’s family was blackmailed into allowing this marriage. Kadyrov defended this union in a long post on Instagram saying the allegations of forced marriage were incorrect.
Yes, the wedding video may simply be showing a shy Muslim bride, nothing out of the ordinary for local customs. And even if this wedding was a result of threats and blackmail, marriages like this are very common in that part of the world, and have been for centuries. However, this wedding resonated with many Russians, outside of Chechnya, who condemn polygamy. The practice is unlawful in Russia.
Watching this video, Russians began to ask, “is Chechnya not Russia?” This ultimately shows that Kadyrov is not accountable to the rule of law in Russia, but would he be the only Russian official who blatantly disregards the law? Between the Putin’s government’s unorthodox economic measures to bail out Russian businesses during the ruble crisis, to issuing laws that severely limit freedom of speech in Russia, to the widespread abuse of human rights especially when it comes to the rights of the LGBT community, Kadyrov is not exactly leading by example, he is simply following the one set by Putin.
After addressing critics of this “wedding of the millennium” as he referred to it, Kadyrov went on to share his opinions about Dzokhar Tsarnayev’s sentencing last week. On his Instagram page, Kadyrov posted a picture of Tsarnayev. The long caption to the picture offers some wisdom from an experienced terrorist hunter and reads like this:
“Dear Friends, Dzokhar Tsarnayev was sentenced to death. This news comes as no surprise… …Yes, I am in support of aggressive war against terrorism.” The seemingly supportive sentiments take a strange turn when he adds: “any person with evil intentions should be neutralized … But I don’t like it when a spectacle is played out under the guise of fighting terrorism. … Tamerlan Tsarnayev was killed under very strange circumstances. Ibrahim Todashev was shot during interrogation. Dzhokhar Tsarnayev was put behind the bars. … He was quickly charged under three dozen articles.” This is where Kadyrov’s comments begin to sound like he is hinting at some sort of conspiracy. He goes on to say that the brothers came to America at a very young age, they studied hard, took up sports, music… The older brother married, had a child… “The ideal biography for a gubernatorial candidate.” Kadyrov asks, “Who made them terrorists? Who taught them to so skillfully prepare bombs, plan the attack without getting found out? … I do not believe that Tsarnayevs were able to do this without knowledge attained from the US Special Forces, if they even did this at all. … If the US and Europe are really committed to antiterrorism, why are they spreading it in the Middle East?” Finally he asks “yes, if they put Tsarnayev to death, what guarantee do we have that they won’t find him innocent later on? This happens often in the United States. … He was nine years old when he came to the United States. And America, in which he believed, made him into a terrorist.”
So, what are some of the takeaways here? First, it is clear that even under the watch of Putin’s close ally, Chechnya is still not Russia. It appears that while Kadyrov may be willing to give up his life for Putin, he would not give up the autonomy of his power so easily. Between that and the fact that Chechen terrorists are still well and alive, Chechnya continues to be a problem area for Russia–and one that merits close monitoring.
Second, the anti-American sentiment is so prominent among Russian leaders that even on an issue like anti-terrorism, arguably the only thing the two sides could see eye-to-eye on at the moment, there is very little hope for cooperation. Conveniently for the Russian government, Kadyrov takes a dual position: he comes out strongly against terrorism in order to discourage it within Russia, but on the other hand he also manages to maintain the anti-US position that Russian leaders would approve of, accusing the US for turning Tsarnaev brothers into terrorists.
 Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot to death in Moscow on February 27, 2015. The assassination sparked major international outrage, many accusing Putin’s government of ordering the murder.