This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.
Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, a Russian region in the North Caucasus, has been the focus of conversation on Russia’s social networks since the beginning of the year.
An exchange between Kadyrov, whose media of choice is Instagram, and Russian officials, parliament members and other Internet users took some bizarre turns even by Russian standards: It involved insults, gallows humor and outright death threats. Many are still wondering what it was all about.
The most realistic explanation is that this was Mr. Kadyrov’s campaign to get reappointed as the region’s head.
The whole story is an interesting case in real Russian politics and therefore deserves a closer look.
Here is an abbreviated thread of the conversation.
January 12. Kadyrov first creates a stir by calling members of the so-called non-systemic opposition “enemies of the people” and “traitors.”
January 13. Ella Pamfilova, Russia’s high commissioner for human rights, says that Kadyrov’s statement “pays a disservice to the president and casts a shadow on the country.” Opposition figures and activists call on the prosecutor general to give Kadyrov’s words a legal evaluation.
January 14. A municipal deputy from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Konstantin Senchenko, in a bitter Facebook post, calls Kadyrov a “disgrace of Russia.” “[During the Chechen war] you were hiding in the hills and shooting our guys dead. They now lie buried while you are a Hero of Russia.”
January 15 . Senchenko says that some unnamed Chechen officials are attempting to silence him. A staged apology by Senchenko to Kadyrov is shown on Grozny TV, a Chechen television channel, but it is unclear if it is real. Senchenko claims he never spoke to Chechen TV. He writes a Facebook post in which he moderates his position significantly, but points out that he still holds on to his views.
January 15. A Chechen MP calls on Pamfilova to apologize publicly before Kadyrov. “As a high commissioner, I refuse to apologize because if I would apologize before every official who shows disrespect of the law I would have to resign my post,” Pamfilova retorts.
January 18. Kadyrov publishes an op-ed in which he suggests placing all non-systemic opposition into a psychiatric clinic in Chechnya. “We won’t be stingy with injections,” Kadyrov writes.
The language of the piece is eerily reminiscent of the Stalinist press and reminds one of punitive psychiatry, a common practice in the Soviet Union. The piece is titled “Jackals Will Be Punished In Accordance With the Law of the Russian Federation” and is published in Izvestia, a major pro-Kremlin daily.
January 20. Ella Pamfilova once again decries the heightened tensions and suggests that political discussion in Russia “has lapsed to the level of 1937” (the year 1937 is the usual code for mass persecution of “enemies of the people” under Stalin).
January 18-20. Many on social networks ask themselves: Isn’t it disgraceful to tolerate arrogant posturing by Kadyrov, who is an official and has to abide by the Russian law that specifically prohibits fomenting hate and aggression? A spontaneous anti-Kadyrov campaign rolls through the Russian Internet and spills over into the streets in the form of posters.
January 22 . Kadyrov stages a mass rally in Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic, and calls it an All-Russia People’s Meeting.
February 1 . Kadyrov posts a now well-known video with the Russian opposition politicians Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Kara-Murza shown in the reticle of a sniper rifle. The caption under the image contains thinly veiled threats. Instagram removes the post later that day.
Many theories have since circulated as to what prodded the Chechen leader to go on the offensive publicly in the first place. Non-systemic opposition, whatever one understands by the term, currently presents no threat to the Kremlin, so that in itself could not have been his purpose. By going after a narrow group of Moscow liberals, Kadyrov actually attracted highly unfavorable attention from all over the place.
Most of Russia’s security officials are no fans of Kadyrov or his henchmen or his methods. Even the regime loyalists are by now grossed out by Kadyrov’s subterfuge. The Chechens who were charged with the murder of the politician Boris Nemtsov (some of them former servicemen of Kadyrov), became a point of discussion again.
Alexei Navalny, a fiercely anti-Putin politician and an anti-corruption crusader, suggested in a blog post that it is time to stop discussing Kadyrov and focus on the one who is directing him, namely Putin.
This is of course very true, but immediate reasons for Kadyrov’s escapades are subtle. “[Kadyrov’s offensive] has been a show for just one member of the audience, a show about Kadyrov’s loyalty to Russia and Putin,” Xenia Sobchak, media personality and anchor at TV Rain, wrote in a piece for the Internet platform Snob. “For the first time in his long political career [Kadyrov will be 40 this year but he has been at the head of Chechnya for almost nine years now—my note], Kadyrov realized that he needed to correct a situation with some task-oriented PR.” Sobchak implies in her piece that Putin is mad at Kadyrov for the murder of Nemtsov and is seeking to punish him.
In the end, Vedomosti reminded everyone that Kadyrov’s position in Chechnya was up for renewal this year. According to Russian law, the term ends five years after the inauguration, which is, in Kadyrov’s case, April 5. A new head of the region is due to be elected in September.
An interim head, someone who would be ruling Chechnya between April and September, has to be appointed by the president of the Russian Federation and Kadyrov, of course, wanted to make sure he is nominated, hence the spectacle.
Now whether Kadyrov’s performance was meant to nag Putin into renewing the appointment is still a question. Some think the Chechen leader has already received some assurances from the Kremlin and the entire show was his way of celebrating a victory.
“Ramzan is hated by many for many reasons. But the troubles are over for him, there is no threat anymore. And he is all excited about this,” an unnamed source in the presidential administration told Vedomosti.
Whether Kadyrov has won a nomination is still an open question. But even before it is resolved, it is important to keep this story in mind because it showcases today’s Russian politics.
What usually happens behind closed doors has popped up on everyone’s computer screens. In a fairly exaggerated form, it reminds us that Russia’s “electoral process” is about players, big and small, cajoling their positions and perks out of Putin. It works just like that television show America’s Got Talent, except there is only one judge.
What is even more interesting to me is the way today Russia’s beliefs, idiosyncrasies and tropes play out in that long conversation thread illustrated above. It contains a lot of arguments and thoughts that would have been the matter of public debate and electoral campaigning if it had a chance to spill over from the social networks into the world of public politics.
And, actually, in some limited way, this has already happened.