I’ve recently been fiddling with an idea for a short story which would involve a minor war in the future, with ambiguous morality of each side. Separate to that, I attended a presentation by Andrey Sazonov, sponsored by the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council, titled, “Ramzan Kadyrov, Leader of Chechnya: Putin’s Frenemy?” That title interested me, and so did the prospect of free food, but I didn’t even realize how great Chechnya would be for that story I’d been trying to get a grip on. Seeing this seminar (which is available online here), it appeared that Chechnya was perfect. Tiny enough to be ignorable, but excessively militarized enough to have a robot battalion. At least, to have a robot battalion in the future. So with that lecture as my background, I did some of my own research on Chechnya. Here it is.
Chechnya was conquered by imperial Russia in the 1800s, though resistance from the conquered peoples continued right up to the declaration of an independent state in 1917, before being taken by the USSR in 1921. Then a bunch of horrible Stalin things and apologetic Kruschev/Gorbachev things happened, and in 1991 Chechen Dzhokar Dudayev lead a nationalist party to overthrow the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic of the Soviet Union. The USSR dissolved in that same year, but Yeltsin wanted to keep all of the Russian Republic—an administrative region of the USSR that is what we now recognize as Russia—together. In 1992 Yeltsin put forth a treaty that granted states of non-Russian ethnic background limited autonomy, which was signed by all but two of the eighty-eight states—Chechnya and Tartarstan. In 1994 Tartarstan signed a treaty to be annexed by Russia, leaving just Chechnya defiant.
In 1992 Ingush split from Chechnya and was absorbed into the Russian Republic, and the next year Dudayev declared full independence as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. In Dudayev’s Chechnya the minority of ethnic Russians, who had long been the ruling elite, were harshly persecuted. Although most Chechens still wanted independence, not all of them wanted ex-General Dudayev to be in power. Thus, there was some armed resistance to the Republic of Ichkeria, which received support from Russia. In December of 1994, Russia declared a full-on war to retake Chechnya, assuming that a lightning-fast aerial bombardment would bring the republic to it’s knees, and finish the war by that Christmas. But it turns out the fighting wouldn’t end for six more Ramadans.
In the year 1996 Dudayev was killed by a guided missile, but the rebels persisted, and a treaty was brokered in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Chechnya and especially Grozny were a ruin, devastated by bombardment. Although Russia sent money to help rebuild this infrastructure, it was just distributed among leaders of resistance groups, and didn’t do much good. In this shattered state, kidnapping and ransoming became a major source of income, and violent religious extremism proffered.
In 1999, after some bombings in Russia supposedly performed by Chechens, Putin declared war on Chechnya. This time Russian forces worked much faster and captured Grozny in early 2000, winning the Second Chechen War (although the parliament of the Republic of Ichkeria continued on in exile.) That wasn’t the end of the fighting though. In this war, as with the first one, the separatist forces were divided—some of them secular, but many of them jihadis. Seeing this shift in the separatist movement (or just hedging his bets) the former rebel mufti (religious official) Akhmad Kadyrov switched sides to work with the Russians. In 2000 he became acting head of Chechnya, and in 2003, with the ratification of a new constitution, he became the president. This new constitution granted some autonomy to Chechnya, which I’ll get into more later. In 2004, a stadium bombing killed Akhmad Kadyrov, and Alu Alkhanov replaced him. In 2007, Akhmad’s son Ramzan Kadyrov replaced Alkhanov, and he has ruled ever since. I’ll get into him a lot more later as well.
At the end of the warring, the death toll was estimated as high as 160,000, 75,000 of those deaths civilian. Grozny was a bombed-out ruin, which the UN said in 2003 was the most destroyed city on Earth. Brutal counter-insurgency measures with Russian and Chechen forces working together continued until 2009. Terrorist attacks caused most ethnic Russians to leave the area. That was then. Next is now.
The Current Situation.
Today, Chechnya has a dubious population of 1.2 million. Dubious because the population was around a million in 1990, before the devastating wars and mass emigration. Russian record-keeping isn’t to be trusted, especially when trying to cover up the massive loss of life that’s occurred in the Caucasus.
These million(ish) people are mostly Muslim, and mostly Sunni. They speak Chechen and Russian, though in more urban areas like Grozny, Russian is the preferred language.
A lot of these people are unemployed, though not as many as in the early 2000s. The economic capability of Checnya was screwed in the war, but has been recovered with federal cash injections—despite (alleged) embezzlement by Kadyrov and co. This economy is based mostly on petroleum, as with many Caucasus states.
Speaking of Kadyrov and co., that’s who’s in charge. The phrase “puppet regime” gets thrown around a lot, because of how much Kadyrov supports Putin, but it’s not entirely appropriate. For a start, Kadyrov eventually called for the Russian counter-insurgency forces to be removed from Chechnya, and he’s a hell of a loose cannon. That is to say, I doubt Putin was pulling the strings when Ramzan called for all women in public institutions to wear headscarves, or when my man R.K. set up the “Akhmad Kadyrov Regional Public Fund”—a sketchy NGO that taxes private sector employees and business owners up to fifty percent of their income, raking in about fifty-five million dollars each month.
This fund has (allegedly) been used to support pilgrims going on Hajj, build a big mosque in Grozny, provide relief to areas of east Ukraine, and to pay celebrities to attend Ramzan Kadyrov’s birthday.
In addition to hilarious things like that, Kadyrov has (allegedly) ordered killings of many journalists and activists who stand against him. People even suspect him of involvement in the assassination of Nemtsov. Oh, and I almost forgot the Kadyrovtsy!
The Kadyrovtsy is also funded by the Akhmad Kadyrov Whatever Bullshit Fund, a paramilitary force of five thousand that’ve been implicated in, like, so many horrible affairs.
This elite group, which I guess is meant to keep internal order, is a part of a larger army of 80,000 soldiers—way too many for a tiny Caucasus republic. Kadyrov has pledged that these soldiers will fight for Putin anywhere in the world, and there are many in Ukraine now doing just that.
I used Wikipedia a lot, and although I followed up most of the information by searching news articles, there’s probably some stuff I forgot to double check. In addition, a lot of the information about the special fund and the Kadyrovtsy (particularly that 80,000 soldiers figure) comes from the Russian documentary The Family. Not to mention, there’s not an abundance of reliable data about Chechnya, because it’s a minuscule, corrupt Caucasian state.
These are my sources:
Wikipedia – For an overview, especially of the wars
This article by RFE/RL – For estimates on the death toll of the Chechen wars
Stability in Russia’s Chechnya and Other Regions of the North Caucasus: Recent Developments by the CRS – For info on recent developments
About World Languages – For specifics on Chechen
This other article by Liz Fuller of RFE/RL – For info on the fund
This article by Kathrin Hille of the Financial Times – For info on recent economic development
And of course, this seminar – For introducing me to the whole thing, and giving me a good background on the situation