Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Shifting Political Hierarchy in the North Caucasus
The Shifting Political Hierarchy in the North Caucasus

The Shifting Political Hierarchy in the North Caucasus

Russians are not the only ones participating in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to the BBC Russian Service, 321 servicemen from the North Caucasus (i.e., the Russian republics of Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan) are confirmed dead. More than half have come from Dagestan. The regional governments have taken in thousands of refugees and forcibly displaced people, and facilitated humanitarian and military aid. Government officials have made occasional excursions to the front. They have also demonstrated public support with auto-rallies, “V” and “Zdisplays, and by hosting an anti-NATO museum exhibit.

The North Caucasus republics’ contributions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have accelerated a key political trend in the regional hierarchy—namely, the increasing influence of Dagestani Governor Sergei Melikov at the expense of Chechnya’s controversial leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Because of the war, Kadyrov—the most powerful man in the North Caucasus—is focused on engaging with the political elite in Moscow, rather than trying to dominate the region. This has created an opening for Melikov to focus on increasing his influence in the North Caucasus and establish a baseline of expectations for regional leaders to follow.

This political shift is important because maintaining stability in the North Caucasus is crucial to the Putin regime’s legitimacy. To this end, Kremlin officials would prefer a more conducive atmosphere among the regional elite. This is not feasible long-term in the current status quo. The reason for this is that Kadyrov has maintained his regional status predominantly through a strategy of selective destabilization (e.g., threatening to invade neighboring republics, conducting kidnapping operations outside Chechnya, and weaponizing ethnic kinsmen in territorial disputes). Accordingly, many federal officials want Melikov to assume a “counterweight” role to Kadyrov’s disruptive influence, which he has been able to do in the Chechen leader’s absence during the war in Ukraine.

Kadyrov’s Federal Maneuvers 

Kadyrov’s current participation in Russian elite politics is unusual for him, in that he rarely wades into elite waters and certainly not as deeply as he has now ventured. He has done so to shore up his national political position, as his history of disruptive behavior has endangered his own position among federal elites.

That Kadyrov was playing political games at the federal level was evident from the initial mobilizations of his personal army, the kadyrovtsy, during Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine earlier this year. Chechnya’s governor was one of the first officials informed of the plan to invade. He found success within elite politics during the initial period of the invasion, due to dissatisfaction with senior leadership in Russian intelligence and the national guard (or Rosgvardia).

However, Kadyrov’s newfound clout in Moscow—due to substantial contributions, in both manpower and finances, to Russia’s war effort—will not last forever. Already, his ability to supply reinforcements to the front has become strained. The Chechen leader likely recognizes his need for a more lasting purpose in the invasion’s larger picture. This has led him to embrace two different strategies, one economic and one ideological.

Kadyrov’s first strategy has been to assume responsibility for the rebuilding of occupied Ukraine. Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader of Donetsk, declared at the end of March that he planned to “use the experience of Chechnya in the recovery of the region’s cities.” A couple of days later, it was revealed that Kadyrov was negotiating for control of Mariupol’s post-war reconstruction. The report asserts that the talks are more serious than just a development deal. Rather, Kadyrov is attempting to obtain a long-term foothold, taking over the Azovstal metallurgy plant and gaining maritime access. With this initiative, he seeks to establish himself as a key player in eastern Ukraine for as long as it is firmly under Russian control. Kadyrov’s success in this endeavor is not yet clear. Many elites would advise Putin against rewarding Kadyrov in such a manner, due to the general anti-Kadyrov sentiments in the Kremlin. However, his kadyrovtsy were the public face of the brutal Mariupol campaign, besieging the Azovstal metallurgy plant and conducting zachistki (“sweep operations”). If successful, these gains would diversify Kadyrov’s assets, while the reconstruction budget would replenish his coffers after his war effort expenditures.

Kadyrov’s ideological strategy is much more radical. He is attempting to integrate Chechnya into the war-created, new wave of Russian nationalism. Chechens, like most in the North Caucasus, have consistently been demonized and excluded from even multinational concepts of being Russian. As a result, his project is no small task.

Kadyrov is employing both exclusionary and inclusionary tactics to advance his agenda. For the former, he is rebranding independence-minded Chechens as “Chechen-speaking devils,” accusing them of co-opting the “real” Chechen identity and implying that the Chechens fighting against Russia are not actually Chechens. This is a tricky feat, as he himself has tried to use the memory of Chechnya’s independence for his own purposes. He is apparently relying on senior Russian elites to forget or overlook this fact. Kadyrov’s administration is also striving to depict Chechnya as an “integral” defender of the Russian motherland and her interests.

The Chechen leader let his personal feelings interrupt his mission when he continued his ongoing feud with Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. The feud stretches back years and has spanned almost every policy sphere; it is ultimately rooted in Peskov’s racism and the fact his daughter married a Chechen. In April, they publicly argued over who is considered a “patriot” by the Russian government. Labeling the kadyrovtsy as Russian patriots is clearly an aspect of Kadyrov’s plan to portray his troops as the “Motherland’s defenders,” but becoming bogged down in a long-running feud with one of the most visible men in Russian politics is nothing but counterproductive to his aims.

Despite reinvigorating his feud with Peskov, Kadyrov has achieved some success at the elite level. Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin commended Adam Delimkhanov— a Chechen member of parliament and Kadyrov’s right-hand man—for leading the Mariupol operation, while other representatives recognized Chechnya’s contribution to the invasion. Volodin and other Duma members met with a senior Chechen delegation during a recent visit to Moscow. This attention from officials who, unlike ministers or presidential envoys, are not required to meet with him, is Kadyrov’s method of signaling to his opponents that he is growing his support base in Moscow. It will likely be some time before the true extent of Kadyrov’s nationality-redefining campaign can be determined.

Kadyrov’s actions clearly demonstrate that, in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he should be viewed as a federal official, rather than a regional one. However, this does not mean that he has federal aspirations. He has already reached his administrative pinnacle, a fact he has recognized by repeatedly declaring that he does not want federal office. Instead, with this federal gambit, he is hedging bets for the future—a future he is already planning for within his government’s ranks. Kadyrov faces no internal threats from rivals in Chechnya, but does face external ones from siloviki and other Russian elites (e.g., Igor Sechin, FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov, or Minister of Internal Affairs Vladimir Kolokoltsev, all of whom have been threatened by Kadyrov or supported Chechen leaders other than Kadyrov in the 2000s).

Melikov Fulfilling Expectations

While Kadyrov has played an ostentatious, federally focused role throughout the invasion, Dagestan’s Sergei Melikov has quietly focused on improving his leadership credentials in the North Caucasus. By doing so, he set expectations for the behavior of the region’s other governors. Melikov has focused on confronting the region’s two looming crises: war casualties and the economy. In the former, he has established the narrative for the other governors to use. In the latter, he has shifted Dagestan’s production into overdrive and has started an attitudinal change concerning regional self-sustenance, which is a significant concern for federal authorities. This more localized leadership is the realization of Moscow’s desired role for the Dagestani governor: He is considered by some to be a potential counterweight to Kadyrov’s influence and is, at the very least, the second most important figure in the North Caucasus political hierarchy, behind his Chechen counterpart.

Melikov’s leadership during the invasion has not meant merely kowtowing to the Kremlin’s wishes: He was the first governor in the North Caucasus to break his silence about casualties, not just admitting they existed, but specifically naming them. His violation of the rhetorical embargo on discussing the number of deaths created confusion, leading other governors to reveal, and then sometimes retract, their own casualty information. While Melikov’s announcement went against Moscow’s orders, it enabled him to begin framing the fallen soldiers as Russian heroes, which is now standard practice among politicians and propagandists. That Melikov set the tone on casualties while failing to visit the front, suggests a strategy to become the regional leader while Kadyrov’s focus is elsewhere. This lack of travel is odd because Melikov has a history of military service in Ukraine (where he was posted in the 1980s) and leadership in Rosgvardia, not to mention his colleagues have frequently made trips to the occupied territories. It is noteworthy that Melikov receives soldiers’ greetings virtually at home instead of in person at the front. Complementing this leadership strategy, focusing domestically also makes sense with the growing economic crisis.

Within a region rife with economic troubles, Dagestan is currently standing out in a negative way. The republic is one of the most vulnerable in the region to food insecurity and suffers from some of the highest inflation rates. To counter such challenges, Melikov has subsidized bread and promised to increase production of various food staples. As part of Russia’s industrial and technological counter-sanctions efforts, Melikov’s administration announced plans to begin mining lithium. In addition to these attempts to stabilize the economy, Melikov has stated firmly that he plans to end Dagestan’s dependence on federal subsidies. This assertion contrasts sharply with other governors’ negative attitudes towards the outlook for development initiatives, particularly Kadyrov’s insistence on the necessity of Moscow’s contribution to the Chechen budget. As Dagestan topped the list of subsidized regions in 2021, Melikov will be hard-pressed to achieve his goal. With the worst economic effects of Western sanctions yet to be felt, particularly in relation to oil (an integral part of the republic’s economy), the hurdles to achieving this objective seem insurmountable. However, the attitudinal shift is what is most important here. Ending Moscow’s substantial subsidies to the North Caucasus has long been a popular cause across the political spectrum. Thus, posturing by regional leaders to reduce their reliance on federal funds would be a boon to the Kremlin. Regardless of the feasibility of Melikov’s plan to reduce subsidies, Moscow would surely welcome similar attitudes from the rest of the region’s leaders.

Presumably, the post-war longevity of Melikov’s present standing depends on whether Kadyrov’s attention stays in federal elite circles or returns to the North Caucasus. However, Melikov’s current stint at the top of the region’s political hierarchy will lend his future influence greater weight, especially since the other governors are more disposed to following Melikov’s leading by example than Kadyrov’s violent, coercive tactics.

Avoiding a Gubernatoropad

While Kadyrov and Melikov conduct their political machinations, the other North Caucasus governors are focused on simply keeping their positions. Despite not being up in upcoming September elections—which only feature North Ossetia’s parliament and the city council of Cherkessk—the regional heads are not guaranteed their safety. Plenty of time remains for any of them to be targeted in a “gubernatoropad” (“fall of governors”).

The most at-risk governor is Ingushetia’s Mahmud-Ali Kalimatov, who has failed to achieve Moscow’s goals at almost every level. Steep inflation and food insecurity have made economic conditions in Ingushetia even worse. He also risks public upheaval by reestablishing a Cossack presence in the republic (Cossacks were used by the tsar during the initial phase of conquering Ingushetia and Chechnya in the 1800s). A wide-ranging crackdown on civil society actors further exacerbates anti-government sentiments.

North Ossetia’s Sergei Menyailo appears to be shoring up his position ahead of the parliamentary elections. South Ossetia’s canceled referendum to unify with North Ossetia and Russia has served as an unexpected windfall for him, reducing the likelihood of political and nationalist turbulence surrounding the regions’ joining. Controlling North Ossetia’s Stalinist-nationalist faction, led by Vadim Cheldiev, proved challenging for Menyailo in early 2020. Cheldiev organized protests in the capital, Vladikavkaz, against pandemic restrictions, which turned into riots. He was subsequently arrested, and recently had his detention lengthened until days before the elections, negating the risk he poses to stability during the intervening time period.

Kazbek Kokov, governor of Kabardino-Balkaria, is most likely safe ahead of this year’s elections, as long as he can maintain public order. The annual Circassian memorial parade in Nalchik—to remember the victims of the Circassian Genocide in 1864—was banned by the authorities, but proceeded regardless. There were minimal attempts to halt the procession past the government buildings. Mass dissent over the invasion of Ukraine among Rosgvardia soldiers from the republic poses a threat, but Kokov will likely not bear responsibility for this. The Circassian protests are, from the Kremlin’s perspective, an unfortunate abnormality. The authorities will continue to disregard Circassian dissatisfaction at the moment, instead relying on the ideologically varied nature of their civil society organizations, partially controlled by pro-Kremlin actors, to ward off any real threats to the Russian state. Circassian civil society is extremely diverse in terms of nationalism and geopolitical orientations, yet still functions inside of one network (as opposed to large-scale fracturing found in other North Caucasian diasporic civil societies).

In neighboring Karachay-Cherkessia, Rashid Temrezov is once again clashing with local elites over the Cherkessk city duma elections. Temrezov, now in his third term, has been embattled since his first reelection. In good graces with Moscow, he survived the 2021 reelection campaign despite allegations of corruption and ties to the republic’s murderous Kaitov family. Although many are dissatisfied with his more than decade-long rule, he is unlikely to fall.

Moscow’s Advantage

Kadyrov’s current participation in political games with the federal elite has resulted in him essentially vacating his regional leadership position. In the absence of this disruptive influence, Melikov has been able to step in, fulfilling federal aspirations for him to serve at the top of the North Caucasus political hierarchy. The other governors, focused on their own respective troubles, have followed Melikov’s lead.

The political hierarchy in the North Caucasus is shifting in ways that are advantageous to Moscow. Melikov is more amenable to the Kremlin and can more easily sway other regional actors to enact policy than Kadyrov. As the Chechen leader’s influence is typically a destabilizing one, keeping him focused on rebuilding eastern Ukraine and on other federal-level activities may be a strategy Moscow adopts to attain long-sought-after economic development and lasting stability.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.