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23 June 2020updated 28 Jul 2021 12:15pm

What two assassination plots tell us about power in Russia and Chechyna

The legacy of the Chechen conflict still hangs heavy over President Putin, in the shape of strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

By Ido Vock

Last week saw two significant stories about Russian political assassinations. The first was that a Russian man had been arrested in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, for allegedly planning to assassinate Giorgi Gabunia, the Georgian TV host whose expletive-filled screed against Vladimir Putin went viral last year during a period of heightened tensions between Russia and its southern neighbour. The director of Mtavari TV claims an anonymous source told him the alleged assassin, from the Ingushetia region of Russia, was operating on orders from Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

The second was the indictment by German prosecutors of Vadim Krasikov, a Russian national, for the alleged murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia, in broad daylight in Berlin last summer. The prosecutors allege that the killing was ordered by the Russian government in retaliation for Khangoshvili’s participation in the Second Chechen War in the early 2000s.

These two plots bear some similarities, in particular the links to Chechnya and Georgia and the impunity with which they were allegedly ordered. But Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services, told the New Statesman that there is a difference between killings planned in Moscow, as Khangoshvili’s is claimed to have been, which are “plotted out, discussed and approved”, and assassinations ordered by Kadyrov, which are carried out on the Chechen leader’s whim.

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“Some things bug Kadyrov. Either he thought: ‘I know, Vova [the diminutive form of Vladimir] would love it if I avenged him and his mother’s honour,’ or this was just something that annoyed him enough to order [Gabunia] killed – or someone thought that his fulminations were the next best thing to an order,” Galeotti said.

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“We have seen a long-running campaign by Kadyrov, going against people whom he regards as enemies, either because they pose a threat, once posed a threat, or just because they pissed him off.”

Kadyrov is given free reign and lavish subsidies totalling around $800 million a year from the central Russian government to keep Chechnya stable, under a long-standing personal pact between Kadyrov and Putin. Separatist authorities fought two devastating wars with Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The bearded warlord is trusted to keep a lid on the ever-simmering Chechen conflict and in return is permitted to rule the North Caucasian republic as he pleases.

Russian laws written by the central government apply in Chechnya insofar as they suit Kadyrov’s interests. Ben Noble, a lecturer in Russian studies at UCL, says this “de facto self-rule” arrangement “is tolerated as a compromise between the central government and Chechnya. Kadyrov trades allegiance to Putin – and the promise not to reignite moves to secede, as in the 1990s – in exchange for the ability to control his own fiefdom.”

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Yet this freedom is a double-edged sword for Moscow, Galeotti explains. “Moscow doesn’t really have a say. Moscow elevated Kadyrov, funds Kadyrov, and allows Kadyrov to continue – but in some ways they, too, are hostages to him. In Moscow, basically everyone hates him. His only allies are Putin and Viktor Zolotov, the head of the National Guard. The rest of the security apparatus despise him on all kinds of different levels, ranging from the sensible political to frankly the cultural snobbish. They see him as this football hooligan thug who is now suddenly in charge.”

The 2015 killing of the liberal opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, which deeply embarrassed the Kremlin, is widely believed to have been the work of Kadyrov. The Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar reports in his book, All the Kremlin’s Men, that Putin considered sanctioning the Chechen leader then but was dissuaded by the prospect of a bloody conflagration in the North Caucasus. Nothing spooks Moscow more than the prospect of another Chechen War, Zygar wrote – and so Putin was persuaded to back down from serious sanctions on Kadyrov.

These two stories show the long shadow of the Second Chechen War. Authorities may have ordered the murder of one man for his participation in the conflict – and have no choice but to tolerate the attempted murder of another for fear that it could begin again.