From March 5th to 16th, Putin was apparently out of sight of the world public. This unprecedented occurrence generated many theories about what was happening in Moscow. Now that the Russian leader has reappeared, questions still linger. If a palace coup did not occur, has there been a restructuring or reorganization of the arrangement of power in the Kremlin? Who stands to gain, and who to lose? In the last Journal posting (Analysis: Is a palace coup under way in Moscow?), a Ukrainian analyst suggested that the ‘old guard’ of the Russian (read Soviet) security services had openly opposed Putin’s domestic and foreign policy, perhaps causing the Russian strongman to pause or stumble. Below, an opinion from an Israeli analyst brings a dimension of the equation further into the forefront: the battle between republic elites for control of the North Caucasus region of Russia.
15 March 2015 ~ Avraham Shmulevich
The quest for the Russian ‘throne,’ or at least for control over it, is in full swing.
What is happening in the Kremlin right now is shrouded in darkness – the ruling regime in Russia, like any criminal gang, does not like publicity. However, after analyzing the events and comparing facts, we can already make adequate conclusions.
First is which groups are fighting each other in the Kremlin. We can argue about the reasons for this struggle, but the fact is that a conflict exists, and there is an open confrontation between the various law enforcement agencies and the authorities, which is visible to the naked eye.
Security Services ‘for’ and ‘against’ Putin
The most significant event that Putin missed during his disappearance was not even the Astana summit, and certainly wasn’t the signing of the pact with South Ossetia, but rather the annual collegium of the FSB, the main event in the life of the agency. In all his years in power, Putin has never ignored it. Moreover, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, gave some obscure explanation about it – saying he didn’t want to come, so he didn’t come, as if it were some kind of party.
It was precisely the FSB [Federal Security Service – Ed.] that put out information concerning Kadyrov’s involvement in the murder of Nemtsov, and did so clearly against the will of Putin himself. The head of the Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov – the biggest heavyweight – almost openly opposes the ‘patron.’ A second security service is connected to the FSB: drug control. Its personnel, I recall, detained the main suspects in the Nemtsov case. The authorities of Ingushetia and Dagestan are in alliance with them.
Against them and on the side of Putin stand Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and, of course, the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. Patrushev pointedly met with Kadyrov, and thus endorsed his work. Such a division into ‘camps’ is also witnessed by the fact that Bortnikov did come to the board meeting of the Security Council, even though he was obligated to be present there as a member of staff.
It is also interesting that the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta published the first interview with Patrushev, in which he told of how wonderful Kadyrov was, and of how they are battling terrorism together. And then – two articles, which laid out the official version of the Nemtsov’s murder, according to which Kadyrov’s guardsman Dadayev carried out the killing with accomplices, and on Islamic grounds, while the authorities had already rejected the ‘Islamic trail’ version of events.
So, apparently, the two warring factions still have equal access to the main mouthpiece. This indirectly evidences that nothing is finished yet, and there is still no talk of dismissing Putin from power, but that there is a struggle to do so.
What could be the reason for this power struggle? Firstly, the killing of Nemtsov, no matter who organized it, was very much a game changer in the Russian elite.
The security of Yeltsin and his team (or ‘Family’) was the main condition for Putin coming to power. Almost none of those who were with Yeltsin (Berezovsky never quite belonged to the team) suffered. Putin abided scrupulously by this arrangement.
And Nemtsov – this was a man from the Yeltsin team who remained close to the ‘Family’ after the death of the first president. In general, Nemtsov had a very warm personal relationship with Yeltsin, who thought of him as a son. After the death of the President, Boris Nemtsov maintained contact with his widow.
It should be noted that Nemtsov, for his part, also complied with the unwritten agreement. His opposition was actually very conditional. He did nothing to channel protest in such a way that really threatened Putin. That is, he operated completely within a sort of systemic opposition called ‘His Majesty’s Opposition.’
Hence, Nemtsov made no mention of any compromising material [on Putin – Ed.] that he should have had, for example, about fraudulent financial schemes spinning in Petersburg during the times of Sobchak and Yeltsin. Nemtsov also surely could have told a lot about how Putin came to power, his financial situation before and after, about his relationships, about how he developed the first and second Chechen wars. He was in government then. So he faithfully observed his part of the bargain, just like Putin – before the murder of Nemtsov. But now they have removed Nemtsov, and the people of the Yeltsin team around Putin, who considered themselves (and indeed were) untouchable, have reason to become worried and take some sort of action.
North Caucasus elites
As for the other part of this group – the North Caucasus elites – here’s another story. The elites of practically every North Caucasus republic have an interest in weakening – or better yet, overthrowing – Kadyrov.
This is because the head of Chechnya has repeatedly staked a claim to the entire North Caucasus. This is especially true of the neighbors – Ingushetia and Dagestan. Chechnya has territorial claims on these republics.
It was the first time the Security Council of Ingushetia had named Kadyrov’s security forces as suspects in the murder of Nemtsov. They were arrested on the territory of Ingushetia. I recall that in Soviet times, Chechnya and Ingushetia were one, and they are related peoples. And recently, the Chechen parliament formally declared a piece of the territory that is part of modern Ingushetia to be its [Chechnya’s] territory. Kadyrov also repeatedly tried to displace the head of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov.
The second territory to which Kadyrov has repeatedly staked a claim is Dagestan. True, the current head of Chechnya is not a pioneer: in 1999, Chechen units of the so-called ‘Islamic Peacekeeping Brigade’ (Islamist militants) invaded Dagestan, which served as the formal pretext for the second Chechen war. Kadyrov, by the way, was one of the closest to [Shamil] Basayev in the first Chechen war.
For Kadyrov, the most coveted territory is Khasavyurt – one of the richest cities in the Caucasus and the third largest city of Dagestan, where the country’s largest wholesale market serves as an outlet for all small- and medium-sized Chechen businesses. Until 1944, a part of the territory adjacent to Khasavyurt was densely populated with Chechens and formed a Chechen autonomy within Dagestan. In 1944, Stalin deported the Chechens and Ingush from the Caucasus, including from the district of Khasavyurt, and they returned under Khrushchev. But some localities in which Chechens lived before the deportation remained occupied by Dagestanis. Now, Khasavyurt is about 30% Chechens, another 30% Kumyks, and 30% Avars – representatives of the Dagestani nations.
In principle, Kadyrov considers the whole of Dagestan to be his potential ancestral lands. Maybe it’s not obvious, but the regime Kadyrov has built is copying Imam Shamil in many ways, in the sense that it imitates the religious regime of Imam Shamil. And the Imamate of Shamil included the territory of Chechnya and Dagestan.
The top leaders of Chechnya publicly lay claims to the territory of Dagestan on the border between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea, including Khasavyurt and Kizlyar. Kadyrov is pushing hard for his people to enter positions of power in the republic [of Dagestan – Ed.]. The Chechen authorities are looking at the lands of Kabardino-Balkaria and even ‘Russian’ Stavropol and Krasnodar territory. Everyone in the Caucasus knows about the territorial appetites of ‘Putin’s Grunt.’
At the same time, there has been talk for quite a long time about how to make Kadyrov governor of the Caucasus – i.e., presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District. This means that Kadyrov will become the master of the entire North Caucasus. It is clear that the people who are in power in other North Caucasus republics are not craving these changes.
Vivid proof of that was the February 17th verdict issued in Dagestan in the case of the attempted assassination of Khasavyurt Mayor Saigidpasha Umakhanov, who has held the post for 18 years and is considered one of the most influential people in the North Caucasus. Shaa Turlaev, personal special adviser to Kadyrov, was charged in the attempt. Previously, the Austrian authorities had accused the adviser to the head of Chechnya in the murder of a former bodyguard of Kadyrov, who gave testimony in Vienna on political killings. Turlaev was even officially on the [Russian] federal wanted list, which did not prevent him from occupying the position of Special Advisor to the head of Chechnya. And now it is not some Austrian court, but an indigenous Russian court that has named this person as the official organizer and contractor of the attempted murder of a public official – the mayor of a Russian city. Thus, the Dagestani elite has challenged Kadyrov.
But after all the elimination of Kadyrov is impossible without the elimination of Putin – this is how the political system is constructed.
It should be noted that the authorities of other North Caucasus republics also have the resources and reasons for challenging Kadyrov, meaning also Putin.
It is also possible that some forces dissatisfied with Kadyrov are inside Chechnya itself. Because Chechnya, unlike what Russian propaganda says, is not a monolith. There are a huge number of people, including those in Kadyrov’s immediate entourage, who hate him and are ready to grab him by the throat at the first opportunity. A very corrupt regime has been built in Chechnya: there are no jobs there, and there is nothing to do but work for Kadyrov, doing nothing. There is no economy in Chechnya, and everything is in his hands. But the Chechens are not the kind of people who love to march in formation. And Kadyrov is preoccupied with the fact that this is contrary to their nature, and is causing great dissatisfaction.
In addition, in Moscow there are also quite influential pro-Moscow Chechens who nevertheless consider themselves quite worthy to assume the post of head of Chechnya, or that Kadyrov has too gone too far and his actions are dangerous for the Chechen people, as they make the Chechens hostages to Russia’s internal power struggle.
And on Russian television, meanwhile, they have begun to talk again about the Chechens as criminal elements. It is they, not some abstract ‘persons of Caucasian nationality,’ who are robbing and raping – this is what is again being said on the current news topics. Harsh anti-Chechen propaganda has arisen.
So, through the smokescreen of rumor and misinformation, several facts are visible: the FSB, drug control forces, and the elites of Ingushetia and Dagestan have clearly gone against the will of the ‘national leader.’ The Security Council, headed by Patrushev, and Kadyrov support [Putin]. Other centers of power and politically important figures remain publicly silent. Although this does not mean that all of these structures present a united front ‘for’ or ‘against’ Putin, it is quite possible and even very likely that there is a split and a struggle between them.
The quest for the Russian ‘throne,’ or at least control over it, is in full swing. Who will win is difficult to judge. But the outcome is close at hand. Revolutions can occur overnight, but rarely last for weeks.