Free Russia Foundation Launches #NoToWar Campaign
Denis Sokolov

Denis is an expert at Free Russia Foundation, a visiting fellow at CSIS. He focuses on North Caucasus informal economy, land disputes, and institutional foundations of military conflicts

Feb 23, 2016
Terrorism against modernization

Between the beginning of the 2000’s and the middle of the 2010’s, domestic politics (its ideological underpinning) in the Russian Federation centered around the fight against local terrorists and modernization.

On one hand, the Russian political elites actively referred to such well-known images of the enemy Doku Umarov, the terrorist group “Imarat Kavkaz”, and the strong pillar of defense, Ramzan Kadyrov. On the other hand, there were innovations, ranging from the Skolkovo Innovation Center to The Group of Eight (G8) and the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games. However, in 2014, everything changed in light of the so-called “creative class” protests and the orchestrated presidential election, the Olympic games, and the Maidan movement in Ukraine. New priorities emerged on the forefront of political life. The modernization project lost its importance for the government due to the takeover of Crimea; Instead of “Skolkovo”, Igor Strelkov gained momentum; the negative image of Imarat Kavkaz and its leader, Doku Umarov was overshadowed by new enemies, initially, the Ukrainian “junta” with Petro Poroshenko and Ihor Kolomoisky then, ISIS, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Nonetheless, despite all these alterations, Kadyrov did not lose his position and significance within Russian politics.

He does not simply keep his position but improves it and creates his own political agenda. On Monday, Kadyrov declared that the Chechen special forces participated in the Syrian conflict helping Bashar al-Assad a long way before the emergence of ISIS being there. This means that his military units fought in Syria before the beginning of the Russian carpet bombings. Obviously, the Chechen leader hoped that the war on terror would make him immaculate, automatically discarding previous and justifying future misdeeds. Worth noting is the fact that Kadyrov knows better than anybody that the difference between terrorism and counterterrorism can be very blurry. Despite the controversy, he felt free to express this anger and initiated a rally in the capital of Chechnya against the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of prophet Muhammad. After this open support for murderers, Kadyrov called for a global coalition in order to destroy ISIS. The fact that many Muslims from the North Caucasus joined or thought to join ISIS helps the Russian and Chechen authorities to keep up the story about the ongoing war between evil and good, in which the authorities fight for the “good” side. More than one million of Chechen immigrants, who left home for a better future in Europe, have relatives in Chechnya. Now, they have become crucial leverage in the hands of the Kadyrov regime. Chechen immigrants are afraid to criticize the regime and in particular, Kadyrov, publicly, trying to prevent any uninvited consequences (arrests, property destruction) for their relatives. There are around 2,500 Chechens in Syria. Out of these 2,500 militants, 500 people are from Russia and the rest, Europe.


The murder of Boris Nemtsov became a watershed for Kadyrov as a politician. Unexpectedly, he found himself on the forefront of the Russian political arena. Putin’s government began to adopt the same methods for suppression of political opposition (intimidation, harassment, the suppression of anti-regime critics), which became a common practice in Chechnya. Moreover, Kadyrov began to use these methods beyond the Chechen borders. In terms of this rhetoric, the murderers of Nemtsov turn into patriots, security guards – politicians, and opposition – the state enemies and mentally sick individuals. Therefore, Kadyrov’s strategy serves as an example for the federal administration. For instance, Magomed Daudov (“Lord”) became the mayor of Grozny much earlier than Alexey Dumin was appointed as governor of Tula.

Simultaneously, at the beginning of February 2016, a dirty political game was set in Ingushetia. To begin with, Kadyrov conducted public meetings with representatives of traditional Islam in Chechnya and Ingushetia in order to discuss non-traditional Islam and its supporters, such as Yunus-bek Yevkurov. Some researchers argue that the Kadyrov administration forced the federal authorities to close down the “Northern” mosque in Khasavyurt (Dagestan). In fact, it was the first time when the conflict between traditional Islam and Salafists (regional politico-religious corporations vs. global Islam) were used not only as a tool for the suppression of political competition in the North Caucasus but as a tool for the creation of a universal regional political mechanism.

The persistent economic decline would increase shadow economies in Russia. According to official statistics, the presence of underground sectors jumped up to 20%, instead of 10 % at the beginning of the economic crisis. Here is a difficult question: who is protecting private property and regulating agreements in this shadow zone? Nowadays, it is very difficult to find a small business which is not controlled by Chechen gangs. In return, every criminal group is under the supervision of Kadyrov or people from his administration, backed up by the military, political and financial power.


Why does Kadyrov outpace all other Russian politicians? Against all odds, experts’ projections, and politicians’ expectations, the Chechen leader is always forced to balance between life and death. But even in these circumstances, he does not observe himself as a loser, instead, he believes in his bright political future. The alternative version for Kadyrov’s fate does not exist as well as for the biggest part of Russian politicians.

Kadyrov’s public activity came unexpectedly for Russian political circles, whose power is derived from the unity between criminal and the intelligent service, established in Saint- Petersburg the 1990s. Grienda Gonzales, a Spanish researcher, and Sir Robert Owen (in the report on the murder of Litvinenko) underline the significance of this unity for political landscaping.

Today, using counterterrorism concerns as a shield, the Chechen law enforcement system has penetrated far beyond the geographical boundaries of the North Caucasus, chasing opponents of Putin’s regime all over the Russian Federation. While the Russian liberal opposition began to receive pressure after the anti-regime demonstration on May 6th, 2012, the regime critics in Chechnya became aware of these realities since the beginning of the 2000s.

After the end of the second Chechen war, the Chechen security forces, embracing police, military, and secret service, received wide authority and privileged political status within Chechen society. On the one hand, given these unprecedented circumstances, political terror shortly became the main political tool in the North Caucasus. On the other hand, society was frustrated and intimidated by repeated acts of terror and willingly tolerated and justified the skyrocketing growth of the state’s political power. However, the rise of authority coupled with enormous expenses on this apparatus. One hour of a counterterrorist operation can cost around one million dollars for the state budget. Two to three terrorists (sometimes, so-called terrorists are just innocent people, who were kidnapped from their own houses shortly before a counterterrorist operation) are besieged by heavily equipped military units and hundreds of soldiers destroy everything on their way. This tactic is analogous to chess. But instead of two players, there is only one player, who controls both sets (black and white). Applying this metaphor to reality, many questions rise up: is there a clear distinction between undercover and terrorist agents? Who and why send suicide bombers?

Oftentimes, so-called terrorist groups back up the interests of the local elites, committing economic blackmail and removing political opponents.

In Syria, militants from the Russian Federation gave a name to ISIS prisons, which are famous for brutality and vicious practice; ISIS “6-department” is analog with the North Caucasus counterterrorism centers or “6- departments”. In Khandala, the local 6-department has the worst reputation within the entire region for inhuman treatment.

GROZNY, RUSSIA. NOVEMBER 17, 2014. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (background) and conscripts pose for a group photograph at an official send off ceremony. The ceremony marks the introduction of army conscription in the Russian Republic of Chechnya. Elena Afonina/TASS Россия. Грозный. 17 ноября. Глава Чечни Рамзан Кадыров (в центре на дальнем плане) и новобранцы осеннего призыва в военном комиссариате Чеченской республики. Елена Афонина/ТАСС

Nonetheless, Ramzan Kadyrov considers the usage of these illegal methods proper and even patriotic. This is a coherent political agenda which attracts many supporters. For Kadyrov and his supporters, this political agenda with particular methods of oppression is the only option to stay in power. This new political entity will be different from the modern “United Russia” Party in many aspects.

Approximately in 2003, many civil activists who argued for freedom of religion, anti-corruption reforms, etc, were persecuted by the Chechen administration, which utilized all available resources. Among others, there are many fabricated charges (even criminal charges for terrorist activities) against regime opponents, disappearance, cruel interrogation methods, violations of police procedural policies, police perjury, etc. At the same time, victims of overwhelming corruption can bribe dignitaries and leave the state in order to avoid charges. According to some activists, the size of bribes varies between 20,000 to 30,000 dollars. As a result, opponents of the regime either immigrate or join armed resistance. Thousands of people decided to leave Russia and other states in the post-Soviet region for Europe, Egypt, Turkey, Arab Emirates, and Ukraine.

According to various informational sources, more than seven thousand Russian citizens and citizens from other former Soviet republics have participated in the Syrian conflict, fighting against the Assad government and joining ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, etc.

It is possible to discern two exoduses of North Caucasus dissidents: local and global. The local exodus of the 2000’s is associated with regime competitors who became members of Imarat Kavkaz or who moved to other places (for example, some Salafists from Dagestan relocated to Russian cities such as Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Tyumen). During the global exodus in the 2010’s, Chechen dissidents were suppressed for their different views rather than for real political actions. The intellectual vanguard of the North Caucasus resided all over the world and resembled with liberal Russian dissidents who escaped from Putin’s oppression to London, Prague, and Warszawa. However, in comparison with the liberal Russian immigrants, Muslim immigrants left many supporters in their home regions. Also, while Russian opponents are not ready to join the armed anti-government resistance, Muslims willingly join armed groups by any means.

Therefore, the North Caucasus and Muslim parts of the former Soviet republics turned into a hot spot, where the substitution of the Soviet collective farm system and destruction of traditional agricultural communities initiated rural revolutions and then, mass urbanization and labor migration outflows to cities and rich regions. Political repressions against prominent religious and national activists led to the creation of an underground armed resistance in the 2000s, and later, the global dissemination of Chechen intellectuals and mujahideens. The devastation of the oil-based Russian economy can exacerbate this conflict and turn it into an open confrontation. Ramzan Kadyrov clearly realizes this perspective and tries to be prepared for a civil war within Russia. This war would be similar to the modern Syrian conflict or the Russian civil war of 1918-1925.