What’s to be Done with Chechnya? – an Essay on Chechen-Russian relations and problems


Chechnya: a Troubled Region

After the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, and the arrest of suspect bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – a young Chechen resident in the US, whose older brother Timurlan was suspected as his co-conspirator but who died in suspicious circumstances during the police investigation and search – the global spotlight has fallen on Chechnya, a semi-autonomous republic in the Caucasus region in southern European Russia, as a site of political instability and terrorist activity. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the region’s fortunes have waned under the leadership of various Prime Ministers and Presidents including Dzhokhar Dudayev and Aslan Maskhadov, and two brutal wars waged by Russian President Boris Yeltsin against Chechnya during the late 1990s; and then waxed after the installation of Ramzan Kadyrov as head of the Chechen Republic by Yeltsin’s sober successor Vladimir Putin in 2004.

Nearly ten years since Kadyrov’s rise to power have passed, and what’s the situation in Chechnya now? It’s subsidised by the Russian government, but a recent audit of Chechnya’s budget implementation by the Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation has revealed apparent discrepancies and violations to the tune of 7.9 billion rubles. Until recently, unemployment was high [1] and it was only in 2012 that the unemployment rate fell below 30% [2]; this was one result of a state program for Chechnya’s social and economic development from 2008 to 2012. Social and economic stability still seems low, though, and many young Chechen men have either drifted into or been enticed to join extremist Islamic groups funded from outside Chechnya and Russia; there are many mercenaries fighting in Syria who are Chechen.

Initially when I started researching for this essay – I was invited to write something on how I’d deal with Chechnya’s problems by Mark Chapman for his blog The Kremlin Stooge – I found that most of the English-language material was on US or UK-based websites which are hardly objective: too often the information is so biased against Russia and its President Vladimir Putin that it’s virtually Russophobic propaganda, and much of it extols neoliberal capitalist remedies over solutions that might be more appropriate to Chechnya’s needs but which commit the unpardonable sin of allowing active government participation and monitoring. One article though that seemed more free of obvious political and ideological bias than the rest was Tomáš Šmíd’s article for CACI Analyst (Issue 4/17/2013) [3] in delineating Chechnya’s problems. I’ll be relying on this paper which pinpointed the following:

– many projects built by Kadyrov’s administration include hotels, a football stadium and a high-quality road between Grozny (the capital) and Gudermes yet kindergartens, schools and good health care facilities are still lacking and a number of education, culture and health care projects remain uncompleted;

– transport and industrial infrastructure are not developing as expected: a renewed rail link between Grozny and Nazran and the building of an oil processing plant in the capital still as yet have no solutions;

– corruption is still a problem despite the Chechen government having a plan to tackle it;

– the banking system remains undeveloped and money laundering is a major issue.

Although Šmíd’s article didn’t draw many connections among these issues, I get an impression from it that the Kadyrov administration appears uninformed as to how to build up a society based on industry and which invests in its people as Chechnya’s most important resource. Funds are being used for vanity projects to impress Russian Federation officials and foreigners while the bulk of the population goes without consistent quality education and health care.

This echoes what Third World countries in parts of Africa and Asia did when they first became independent in the 1960s: they spent money, much of it borrowed, on building dams, swanky hotels and, in one African Muslim-majority country, the world’s largest Roman Catholic cathedral [4]. At the end of the day, what these countries had to show for their efforts were a lot of expensive concrete white elephants that often ended up being eroded by tropical rains and swallowed by jungle, plus a humongous debt that citizens had to pay for by having to surrender what meagre public education and health care services they had to fulfill IMF and World Bank demands that their governments pay off outstanding loans first and think of their citizens second (or last).

Chechnya is travelling down this well-worn path of expensive flashy Potemkin village structures (that might not actually be very well constructed) and a massive debt that its people will eventually have to shoulder. What can be done to wean the Kadyrov administration away from preferring show-pony projects over the hard work of growing a stable and diversified economy with a healthy and educated workforce that’s as keen on culture, sport, art and science as in working hard and earning enough to invest in their families and children’s well-being?

What’s to be Done? – Some Suggestions

Some of the problems Šmíd identified may be a consequence of the structure of Kadyrov’s government: he says it is “strongly vertical” which I take to mean that it’s pretty much one-man rule. Kadyrov would be carrying primary responsibility for determining what to spend money on and how much to spend. Who’s advising him and what sort of advice he’s getting are crucial: is he relying on experts advising him what to do or is he taking notes from relatives, friends, friends of friends and the “counsel” they recommend? A stereotype about Chechens and Chechen society is that the people are much the same as the Mafia and the society is dominated by tribalist-minded clans who close ranks and command absolute obedience from their members whenever something they don’t like wafts by, and wage blood feuds and vendettas against one another. True, Chechen society traditionally was dominated by tribal institutions called teips [5], made up of clans of related members who would band together to exact revenge on outsiders who committed wrongs against one of their own; but Chechen society also had a code of ethics (konakhallah) [6] aimed at spiritual and moral perfection of the individual regardless of social class, ancestry and teip affiliation [7], and which at times must have contradicted a person’s loyalty to his/her teip. For every stereotype about Chechens that is based on fact, there can be a surprising counterpoint in Chechen culture and society.

Whatever, the issue of why Kadyrov is spending money on concreting over the country needs tackling. If he is spending money in particular areas as a way of appeasing and balancing rival groups’ interests, that may indicate a weak civil society in which legal institutions are poorly developed. In such a context, bribery and other forms of corruption are bound to flourish. Without a proper legal set-up that makes court mediation and settlement of disputes with proper compensation possible and available to everyone, people end up resorting to haggling, underhand methods and appealing to clan and teip heads who in their turn might demand absolute loyalty from the appellants. In the early 2000s, Grozny had a Supreme Court and the towns had district courts, and correctional facilities also existed [8]. More might need to be done that addresses the particular legal needs of Chechens: a system of mobile lawyers to reach remote settlements to hear and settle disputes might be what they want. Communities would be expected to pay for these lawyers’ protection and accommodation costs; the Chechen code of conduct (nokhchallah) could be invoked to give immunity to the lawyers from harassment and threats of violence. Heads of communities would have responsibility to guarantee this immunity.

A code of law that blends Russian legal codes with aspects of Islamic law and native Chechen law and traditions might also be what Chechens want. Ideally experts in Islamic law and native Chechen law within and outside Chechnya would work with Russian and Russian-trained Chechen legal experts in creating such a code. The code must ultimately respect human dignity and ensure legal equality for everyone, and conform to international conventions signed by Russia.

If Kadyrov is spending to bolster his and his family’s fortunes and acquire more power and influence, government structural reform might be required so that power is less concentrated in his position and dispersed in a more horizontal structure. The Chechen State Assembly needs to become a more effective legislative political institution that represents the interests of the Chechen people. Political parties that are not Moscow-based but based on Chechen people’s needs and interests are needed.

Šmíd also identifies a weakly developed banking and financial system which allows corruption and money laundering to fester. Not surprisingly, any external investors currently thinking of investing in Chechnya would take one look and run off. It goes without saying that some of those prospective investors represent the very industries that Chechnya needs: petroleum companies to open up Chechnya’s oil resources, medical and health care firms, and educational and cultural agencies. Perhaps one reason the banking and investment sector is so badly lacking is that the government is suspicious of Western investors who would take advantage of Chechnya’s relative naivete about the financial world to claim the country’s assets for themselves in the name of “privatisation”.

One possible solution would be for the Kadyrov administration to adopt Islamic banking [9] as the basis for Chechen banks and require all such agencies and other financial institutions to conform to Islamic banking principles that prohibit usury and other forms of financial exploitation. The definition of financial exploitation could be extended to include bribes, financial blackmail, kickbacks, transactions and financial products that involve several layers of buyers and sellers based in locations outside Chechnya or the Russian Federation, and transactions whose paper trails are imprecise and can’t be traced easily. A team of experts from within Russia and countries where Islamic banking has been practised for some time could advise on the best ways to set up and develop banks and other financial institutions suited to Chechen people’s needs. Chechens themselves need training and education on how to run these banks and run them well.

Without strong and accountable political, civic and financial institutions to provide a bedrock, issues of perennial budgetary black holes, corruption in high places, favouritism towards political allies and misallocation of funds towards pet projects instead of more pressing needs such as education, health care, social welfare, a proper transport infrastructure, law and order, and creation of a context that attracts private business investment to stimulate industry that provides gainful employment, will continue.

I have come across some online news that suggest that construction projects in Grozny have exploited workers who were forced to work at low wages in near-slavery conditions. Laws that forbid exploitation of workers and establish their rights are needed; a court that oversees industrial working conditions and collective bargaining and negotiating between employers and workers might be needed.

What the Russian Government can do

The use of subsidies to encourage construction and employment can only continue as long as Russia’s economy is thriving. If the situation changes, Russia would find itself in a position of propping up Chechnya and similar dependent regions that become a drain on the rest of the country, similar to Yugoslavia in the 1980s when richer areas like Croatia and Slovenia subsidised poorer regions like Kosovo. Russian taxpayers are already expressing their distaste at having to support what they see as freeloaders.

For its part, the Kadyrov administration may be dependent on yearly hand-outs. However, withdrawing subsidies from Chechnya has its dangers: Kadyrov might need the subsidies as much to balance competing pressures from rival groups in the Chechen political elite; his position would become tenuous if the money spigot were turned off; and if he perceives that Russia no longer supports him, he may look to other countries in his part of the world (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar) to make up any shortfalls in funding. This would open the door to Saudi and Qatari-financed groups wanting to convert young Chechens to extremist forms of Islam and turn them into jihadis. There may well be the attitude on the Chechen elite’s part that Russia owes Chechnya big time for ruining the republic during the wars of the 1990s; if Russia were to switch off the supply of funds, the Chechen leadership may turn against the Kremlin and urge Chechens to take up arms again.

One solution might be for the Russian government to prod Kadyrov’s administration in the direction of greater transparency and developing stronger civic, political and financial institutions by tying future subsidies to performance. An approach in which the carrot is combined with a thickly padded stick applied gently and firmly would be the way to go. Subsidies will only be forthcoming if Kadyrov commits to political, legal and financial reforms and makes efforts to get rid of corrupt practices in his government.

An alternative to providing subsidies would be for joint ventures between individual Russian Federation government agencies and private business to invest in particular projects in Chechnya. What active role the Chechen government would have in these ventures would depend on the project itself: the role might be to monitor public reaction to the project as it progresses and make any public displeasure known to the key agents who would then have to rectify the cause. The Chechen government could insist that all ventures must employ Chechen people and provide training for them so that when the projects end, Chechen employees have the skills and experience to set up their own businesses.

I do not know if Russia has a hands-off attitude towards the Chechen government’s conduct or already has direct and indirect ways on paper of checking Chechnya’s expenditures and ensuring they are transparent, but just isn’t enforcing its own laws. If the laws exist, Russia might need to appoint a team of auditors to periodically check Chechnya and other subsidy-dependent republics’ accounts, visit the republics to see how government money is being spent and report back to the Kremlin.

Chechnya’s Resources and Economic Potential

From what I’ve been able to find out on Google in the way of English-language information about Chechnya’s resources and economy, as of 2003, the republic had a massive environmental problem [10] as a result of the 1990s wars and the heavy reliance on oil drilling, still the main industry in Chechnya. Petroleum-related air and water pollution was a problem then and could still be a major problem now. Here the Russian government could go some way in making amends for the recent past by undertaking clean-up projects, perhaps together with private firms, and giving Chechens the skills and knowledge of cleaning up their environment and preserving it.

There is hydroelectric and geothermal energy potential in Chechnya that could lessen Chechnya’s dependence on imported electricity and provide export earnings. Although Chechnya has oil deposits, many of these are in seismically active areas that would require fracking: a costly venture, and perhaps one the Russian government might prefer not to pursue, given that it already throws so much money at the republic.

Chechnya has mineral water resources that could become the basis of a tourist industry centred around spa resorts and related recreation. Mineral water and clays for cosmetic and medical purposes could be exported to the Russian market.

Agriculture could be a major export industry as Chechnya has fertile soils including chernozem soils, a climate with warm to hot summers though cold winters and large areas suitable as pasture. Rearing cattle, sheep and horses on steppe and mountain pastures, and growing organic fruit and vegetables for the Russian market would be the mainstay agricultural industries. Beekeeping and exporting honey could also be viable industries if Chechnya is free of varroa mites and other bee colony nasties. A more exotic but possible agricultural industry is raising alpacas for wool: alpacas are mountain animals themselves and would adapt to the highland climate and terrain of the Caucasus; as they have toe nails instead of hooves, their feet are kinder to the soil than sheep’s feet. Together with raising sheep and other wool-bearing animals, related industries such as textiles manufacturing, carpet-making and leather-working could be useful activities that give work to unemployed people, help to maintain Chechen cultural traditions and encourage tourism.

Other industries Chechens could consider adopting include adventure tourism (mountain-climbing, extreme winter sports, fishing, horseback-riding, hiking and camping) and alternative energy sources such as wind and solar energy in mountain regions. Farms in remote areas might benefit from opening up to tourists looking for farm stay experiences.

It should be mentioned at this point that many industries and ventures suggested here and in the preceding section could be operated either as joint partnerships between government agencies and private interests, or as co-operatives run by communities. The use of Islamic banking would encourage such partnerships with all parties having an interest in seeing projects succeed. Teips could have a role in owning and running industrial and agricultural co-op enterprises that provide jobs for their members and goods for export to the Russian market; in time, profits earned from these enterprises would allow teips to offer benefits such as health insurance, pension funds and credit and mortgage facilities to members. This could go some way to changing popular perceptions of teips as Mafia-type clans.

President Kadyrov’s Vision of an Islamic State

One issue that Russia should be mindful of is the style of Kadyrov’s leadership and what his vision for Chechnya may be. Kadyrov may be re-creating Chechnya in the style of an Islamic emirate with himself as an absolute leader who dispenses largesse to his people and expects their total obedience. Hence, the transformation of Grozny with dazzling skyscrapers, the huge Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque (one of Russia’s largest), an Islamic university and an Islamic medical institute, plus an extensive infrastructure of mosques around the republic [11].

News in the Western media about Kadyrov’s rule – in particular, his apparent disregard for human rights and willingness to harass, arrest and torture those who disagree with him, his attempts to apply Shari’a law (as interpreted by him) and to confine women to the home – could very well be exaggerated but they may also have some basis in fact. The danger in Kadyrov cherry-picking bits and pieces of orthodox Sunni Islam, Sufism and Chechen folk beliefs that suit him and then force-feeding his syncretic Islamic mash-up into his people is that in the long run, Chechens – and younger Chechens especially – will see the patch-up job for what it is, tire of Kadyrov’s approach and either become alienated from Islam altogether (as young people in Iran have done under years of theocratic rule) or start following Salafist / Wahabist Islam. Ironically, this is the form of Islam that Kadyrov wants to combat in Chechnya with his ham-fisted attempts at building an Islamic state. At the very least, popular disillusionment with Kadyrovism, whether in religion or as a bizarre mass social experiment, might express in part in future social problems for Kadyrov’s administration: depression and other mental illnesses, and addiction to narcotics and dangerous drugs, some of which may be supplied deliberately by Western intelligence agencies to undermine Chechnya.

There is also the concern of succession: Kadyrov is still young (at this time of writing, he had just turned 35 years of age) and may have consolidated his leadership so that he continues being President for another decade or so. With eight children from his first wife and an apparent stated desire for a second wife, Kadyrov could be planning a family dynasty along similar lines as the Saudi royals. Whether that sits well with Chechen people and their traditions will be another thing; if the heads of the various teips suspect that Kadyrov does indeed intend to pass on the Presidency to his children, that could be the very thing that leads to demonstrations and protests which, if he tries to suppress them violently, will be Kadyrov’s undoing and the cause of his downfall.

The Russian government should take care not to associate itself too closely with Kadyrov and to monitor closely his enthusiastic attempts to build an Islamic state. It’s more than likely that the various budget misallocations Russian government auditors regularly complain about are ending up in the various Islamic schools Kadyrov has set up when the money should have been invested in secular education and health care. Russian auditors perhaps need to regularly visit Chechnya pretending to be Muslim pilgrims and tourists to visit mosques and Islamic schools to see how much of the annual budget is being diverted to Kadyrovism!

The issue of succession should not wait until Kadyrov starts thinking about celebrating his Silver Jubilee: the Russian government needs to consider cultivating a new generation of politicians with the vision and ideas to reform Chechnya after Kadyrov leaves (or is pushed). To that end, the Kremlin might offer scholarships to young Chechens to study law, engineering, the sciences, the humanities and commerce in Moscow and St Petersburg tertiary institutions with the proviso that the students do practical work during their course-work or for at least two or three years after finishing their degrees in different parts of Russia other than Chechnya. Only then can they return to Chechnya. Regular audits of Kadyrov’s administration as well as his budgets and completion of projects, firm and persistent prodding with the carrot-and-stick approach and other subtle ways of forcing Kadyrov to allocate money to needed projects instead of projects that feed his fantasies are some other options.

The Way Forward

Although it probably won’t sit well with the Russian public, the fact is that Russia needs to keep feeding Chechnya money as a way of keeping the republic on side and away from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other oil sheikhdoms flush with money and influence – at least in the short to medium term. Some financial corruption might be a small price to pay for Chechen stability and Kadyrov’s loyalty: how much corruption Russia is prepared to tolerate is for the Kremlin to decide.

At some stage Russia will have to loosen the apron strings and force Chechnya to become more self-sufficient and Kadyrov to shelve his dreams of a pure Islamic state. Sooner or later Chechen people themselves will view him as an embarrassment and want him to go. How he should go, when and who or what will fill the job vacancy when he does: for all of this, the Russian government must start planning. If Kadyrov is unwilling to give up his vision of a pure Islamic state, Russia must start identifying future reformist leaders in the republic’s legislature or in other sectors of its society (such as business, primary industries, sciences, culture, the military) and train them. If Russia is clever, these leaders could be cultivated under Kadyrov’s nose in a way such that he would never suspect what was happening; he could be encouraged to approve lists of people for study scholarships, work secondments with private or government employers in other republics or serving junior roles in the Kremlin bureaucracy.

Russia will need to forge goodwill with Chechnya if it is to push the republic in the direction of better government and less freeloading: moves to clean up the devastation left by the 1990s wars, rehabilitate Chechnya’s natural resources and find ways of preserving the natural environment for its own sake through ecotourism and adventure tourism ventures and incorporating sustainability principles in all business projects are some possibilities. Where possible, organic and fair trade farming and other agricultural practices should be the norm. Opportunities for Russian advisors and Chechen farmers and peasants to work together and pool their knowledge and resources to improve agricultural methods, find and develop new crops and stock, increase productivity and output, and practice proper stewardship of the land and its resources could open up here.

The key is always for Russians and Chechens to treat each other as equals and for both sides to drop their prejudices and stereotypes about each other if they’re to work together to fulfill the goal of making Chechnya a better country.



1/ Unemployment in Russian Federation: Unemployment Data for the Republic of Chechnya (http://unemploymentinrussia.com/republic_of_chechnya.aspx)

2/ “Chechnya’s Unemployment Plummets 40% as State pledges New Investment”, RIA Novosti, 17 December 2012 (http://en.ria.ru/russia/20121217/178215748.html)

3/ Tomáš Šmíd, “Chechnya and Russian Federal Center Clash Over Subsidies”, The Central Asia -Caucasus Analyst (Issue 17 April 2013) (http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/12704-chenya-and-russian-federal-center-clash-over-subsidies.html)

4/ Sacred Destination, “Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, Yamoussoukro” (http://www.sacred-destinations.com/ivory-coast/yamoussoukro-basilica-of-our-lady-of-peace)

5/ “Teip”, Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teip)

6/ Chechen Republic Ichkeria, “Chechen Ethics: Konakhallah” (http://www.waynakh.com/eng/2012/05/chechen-ethics-konakhallah/)

7/ Chechen Republic Ichkeria, “Chechen Ethics” (http://www.waynakh.com/eng/2012/04/chechen-ethics/)

8/ The Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Kingdom of Thailand: Situation in the Chechen Republic (http://www.thailand.mid.ru/chech3.html)

9/ “Islamic Banking”, Wikipedia (http://http//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_banking)

10/ “Geographic Position and Natural Resources of Chechen Republic”, Caucasian Knot, 21 April 2003 (http://eng.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/499/)

11/ “Holier Than Thou: Ramzan Kadyrov and ‘Traditional Chechen Islam’ “, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, 16 June 2010 (http://www.rferl.org/content/Holier_Than_Thou_Ramzan_Kadyrov_And_Traditional_Chechen_Islam_/2073626.html)

This article was originally written for The Kremlin Stooge at www.marknesop.wordpress.com.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.