Chechnya`s New President: Rational Actor or Ideological Zealot?
Kevin Daniel Leahy

Chechnya’s new pro-Moscow president cannot be accused of resting on his laurels. Since his elevation to the republic’s top political post last month, Ramzan Kadyrov has scarcely paused to take stock of his meteoric political rise, briefing the media on a whole host of sensitive political topics, spearheading various socio-political initiatives, while reorganizing the presidential structures swiftly and decisively. Many Russian analysts believe that Kadyrov’s appointment undermines the very concept of Russian statehood, with some accusing him of harboring latent separatist inclinations. Whether Kadyrov harbors such inclinations is irrelevant, however; whether or not he will act on them is the more pertinent question.

BACKGROUND: In the final analysis, the sagacity or folly of President Putin’s decision to promote Kadyrov will be judged solely on the extent to which the new Chechen president is a rational actor. In the broad field of decision making analysis, the rational actor theory is commonly referred to as the “classical” model for explaining the choices human beings make. The rational actor model posits that individual actors, fully cognizant of the various courses of action open to them, will choose the optimal means available to achieve their given objective. It should be stated at the outset that it remains far from clear what Ramzan Kadyrov’s ultimate political objective amounts to. Does he foresee Chechnya winning de jure independence from the Russian state? Or is he content to expand the republic’s autonomy within the amorphous bounds of Russian statehood? In light of recent developments, Kadyrov appears to have chosen the latter course.

While consistently professing his loyalty to the Russian state, he has fought doggedly to extend his government’s political and economic writ vis-à-vis the federal centre. Kadyrov continues to lay claim to the republic’s natural resources, arguing that Chechnya should be allowed to create its own oil company to replace the incumbent production license holder, Rosneft. On the political front, he has successfully campaigned to have Chechen convicts serving time in Russian jails transferred to prisons in Chechnya. Kadyrov has also embarked on a tentative détente with a long-time bete noire of the Putin regime, the British-based separatist foreign minister, Akhmed Zakaev.

Behind the scenes, Kadyrov has been busy reshuffling his ministers, promoting a plethora of former separatists to sensitive government posts. This proliferation of separatists-cum-loyalists has left many in Moscow aghast, with nervous politicians and commentators endlessly pondering Ramzan’s political trustworthiness. Behind all the blusterous professions of loyalty to Russia, could he, in fact, remain a “secret separatist”?

To invoke language more commensurate with the lexicon of rational actor analysis is he, fundamentally, an ideological “zealot”? Kadyrov already compromised his pro-independence principles once, when he switched sides at the outset of the second Chechen war, and joined the federal forces. Allying himself with Moscow was one of a number of options then open to Kadyrov. He could have resisted the invading forces, he could have fled the country, or he could have decided not to fight at all. Ultimately, in order to follow the political path that he deemed the most prudent at that juncture, Kadyrov necessarily renounced his previous, self-proclaimed ideological outlook. On that occasion, Kadyrov was not so “zealous” as to reject the “rational” course of action as it then appeared to him.

IMPLICATIONS: By turning his back on his erstwhile comrades, Kadyrov emphatically illustrated that ideology is not a definitive factor in his decision making process. It is likely that Ramzan and his late father, Ahmed-Hajji Kadyrov, were lured over to the Russian side by certain Kremlin officials who promised them great power and influence. As such, it was greed, not ideology, that prompted this decision. It is important to note that Ramzan’s greed mitigates the possibility of him re-embracing separatism. At present, Kadyrov enjoys the lifestyle of a post-modern, landed gentleman. Zooming about the republic in his heavily-armed convoy of SUVs, he exudes the calm, confident demeanor of a country squire surveying his fief. However, were Kadyrov to turn demonstratively against the Kremlin tomorrow, he would likely provoke a violent, knee-jerk response from the Putin administration. The Russian president has invested a great deal in his young charge, and to say he would be displeased with such a turn of events would be an understatement.

A third Russian invasion of Chechnya would necessarily deprive Kadyrov of the flamboyant lifestyle he currently enjoys. According to the Russian journalist Vyacheslav Izmailov, Ahmed-Hajji Kadyrov once told him that the Chechens had been “idiots” to provoke Russia in the early 1990s. “With Russia,” he told Izmailov, “it is possible to take whatever we want and at the same time live as we like”. As his endless public praise of President Putin indicates, Kadyrov the younger remains mindful of this sage piece of paternal advice. He is also no doubt mindful that a “return to the hills” would be contingent on Dokka Umarov and his rebel rump welcoming back their prodigal son. Given that Kadyrov has been responsible for, among other misdemeanors, the kidnapping and subsequent disappearance of several members of Umarov’s family, reconciliation is hardly an option. Kadyrov’s recently-demonstrated ability to satisfice on important political issues is another factor that militates against him returning to the separatist path.

Although the willingness to choose a less-than-optimal course of action is not, in the strictest sense, the mark of a rational actor, the art of compromise is central to all political activity. For instance, as of March 21 Kadyrov has dismissed the prospect of signing a power-sharing treaty with Moscow, insisting that such a treaty would undermine the concept of Russian statehood. The inauguration of such a treaty between Grozny and the federal centre has long been a central political objective for the Kadyrov clan. Nevertheless, Ramzan has discreetly but firmly removed this issue from the centre-periphery political discourse, quite possibly as part of a quid pro quo agreement which hastened his ascent to Chechnya’s presidency.

CONCLUSIONS: Kadyrov might not be an ideological zealot but that is not to say that he will never re-embrace the separatist mantra. For now, the Russian state under Putin gives the appearance of strength, if not quite vitality. As the political situation in Russia presently stands, Kadyrov would be quite foolish to upset President Putin. The Russian state still possesses enough power and focus to smash his fledgling regime should it decide to do so. However, should the Russian state weaken socially and economically over the coming years- for example following the 2008 elections – Kadyrov might well deem it rational to adopt an even bolder, more independent stance vis-à-vis the federal centre. First Deputy Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev, a principal candidate in the race to succeed Putin, stated last September that the next Russian president could be faced with major political challenges arising from “economic upheaval”. A president preoccupied with major political challenges in the Russian heartland might well choose to adopt a policy of benign neglect toward Chechnya in much the same way as Boris Yeltsin’s administration did during the early 1990s. In view of the prevailing political conditions in Russia, Ramzan the rational actor moves cautiously and stealthily, extending his republic’s autonomy gradually as each opportunity presents itself. There may come a day, however, when Ramzan will deem it opportune to break decisively with a Russian state rendered impotent by its own internal political contradictions.

Kevin Daniel Leahy holds a postgraduate degree from University College Cork, Ireland.
Article originally published by Central Asia-Caucasus Institute: