Ramzan Kadyrov, word has it, is out of control.
Just look at his Instagram, after all: full of threats against opposition leaders, videos of brow-beaten politicians retracting their criticism of the Chechen president, and lots of other content that would get most websites blocked by Roskomnadzor.
I don’t want to spend time here recounting who Kadyrov is, where he came from and what he’s up to. (For that, no one better than Oliver Bullough in the Guardian.) Instead, I want to propose an alternative to the prevailing wisdom, which has it that Kadyrov – with his violence, his over-the-top rhetoric, his divisiveness and his breathtaking corruption – is an ever-growing liability for Putin. Maybe he’s not. Maybe (bear with me here), he’s actually Putin’s better half.
No one out there is writing that Kadyrov is a good thing or even a nice man, and I’m certainly not going to be the first. But there’s something wrong with the conventional story that Kadyrov is becoming an unmitigated disaster for Putin’s Kremlin.
One line of reasoning has it that the man is out of control, an ideologue who feels the wind at his back and is doing what he does best. If that’s true, then the problem for the Kremlin is that Kadyrov is more Putin than Putin, that he’s pushing the narrative too far, too fast.
Another line of thinking, somewhat more popular in the analytical establishment, has it that the problem is corruption: Kadyrov and Chechnya have grown fat on Kremlin largess, sent south to keep the Republic peaceful, but times have changed, there’s less money to go around, and Kadyrov has hungry (and potentially angry) mouths to feed. Thus, to give the Kremlin good reason to keep the money flowing, he’s running off his own mouth. The danger, of course, is that he’s got the Kremlin over a barrel, and others can see it.
Either or both of these stories could, I suppose, be true. Only Kadyrov’s psychoanalist knows for sure. But neither story really rings true, not least because there was never really any threat to Kadyrov’s position. It is broadly accepted that he is one of two regional leaders Putin can’t afford to lose (Aman Tuleev being the other), but the dependency runs in both directions: the day Putin leaves the Kremlin is, most likely, the day Kadyrov leaves Russia (in whatever state of health). And so they go out of their way to keep one another happy.
So here’s an alternative: Kadyrov is the new Medvedev.
Remember Dmitry Medvedev? Way back when, Putin needed to convince a significant portion of the Russian population and the world that things were moving ahead, that the country was progressing and modernizing and normalizing and all of those other wonderful things that Medvedev found in Silicon Valley and brought back in the solid-state memory of his iPhone. Investors loved it. So did the White House. And, broadly speaking, it worked for Russians, too. If you wanted to believe in modernization, you were a Medvedev man; if you wanted motherhood and sharlotka, you threw your hat in with Putin. Either way, you were supporting the same thing.
That was Tandem 1.
Times have changed. The technocratic narrative of ever-growing prosperity is out the window, at least for the foreseeable future. Legitimacy comes now from a mixture of charisma and tradition, from roots sunk deep into a peculiar vision of the past, meant to obscure an increasingly vague future. Bolstered by Crimea, the Donbas and the general standoff with the West, this has worked well enough, but it has come at a cost. Just as many Russians didn’t see the ‘Medvedev vision’ as their own, so are some – including, quietly, many in the elite – alienated by where Putin has taken things in his third term. And so Putin has tempered a bit. That, though, comes as a sore disappointment to many of those whom he had so excited only a short while ago. It’s hard to have it both ways, it seems – unless you’ve got a partner.
This is Tandem 2. Having lost the most ardent progressives irrevocably to the hard opposition, Putin is no longer worried about that flank. Instead, he works on the center – and particularly the elite, with their anxieties about global financial markets, and even about a bit of cheese – while he hands the national-patriots off to Kadyrov. Together, they cover the spectrum of constituencies Putin needs to rule (and, thus, Kadyrov needs to survive), and they do it brilliantly.
I could be wrong, of course. Putin could dismiss Kadyrov tomorrow (though I doubt it); Kadyrov could even join the ranks of the nationalist opposition (though I doubt that, too). But before we look for signs of turmoil in a relationship that has worked so well for so long, we might first consider the idea that things are actually going exactly as they were meant to.