Could Ramzan Kadyrov succeed Putin

Guest commentary: Russia in the shadow of the Chechnya war

On September 30, 1999, Russian tanks rolled across the border into Chechnya - for the second time in five years. That was the beginning of what we now call the Second Chechnya War. The first lasted from 1994 to 1996 and was ended by a peace treaty between then President Boris Yeltsin and the Chechen leader and former Soviet military colonel Aslan Maskhadov.

The formerly autonomous Soviet republic became de facto a semi-independent entity that ruled a bunch of quarreling warlords. Officially, Chechnya remained under Russian rule, but in reality it was left to its own devices. Most Russians saw this as a pathetic defeat for their state - which it was.

Putin's "short, victorious war"

In August 1999, Vladimir Putin entered the political scene, newly appointed Russian Prime Minister and President Yeltsin's designated successor. Young and energetic as he was, he immediately adopted a tough tone against Chechnya, especially after a series of mysterious bomb attacks on apartment blocks in Moscow and Volgodonsk in September. Security at all costs and "eradicating terrorism" became a top priority for the Russians. When the Russian military moved towards the Chechen capital Grozny, the people knew that behind it was probably not the ailing Yeltsin, but Putin. He became president a year later.

Konstantin Eggert is a Russian journalist

The war was officially referred to as an "anti-terrorist operation". It was to be short and victorious, not least because the supreme leader of the Chechen troops and Grand Mufti of the republic, Akhmad Kadyrov, switched sides and agreed to a deal with the Kremlin.

Akhmad Kadyrov died in a bomb attack in 2004. His son Ramzan - Russia's most powerful Muslim politician - has led the former rebel stronghold like his personal feudal empire ever since.

In those stormy times 20 years ago, the Russians traded their freshly won freedoms for the supposed security that Putin's authoritarian leadership promised. And who could blame them? After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economy fell sharply and social security became increasingly pitted. When Putin promised in 1999 to "pursue terrorists everywhere. We will corner them in the toilet and destroy them", it made him popular with millions of people. They longed for a strong leader who would restore their and their country's self-respect. Now they have to live with the consequences.

A cheap peace deal

In Grozny you can no longer recognize the wasteland and destruction of 20 years ago. The city is full of shiny carriages and skyscrapers made of steel and glass. However, over 80 percent of Chechnya’s coffers are filled by direct subsidies from Moscow.

Many see this as the price Moscow had to pay for its cheap peace deal with Kadyrov. Rumors of corruption persist, but they cannot be discussed publicly. Putin's security state, which emerged from the war 20 years ago, controls the elections at all political levels. There are no independent MPs who can investigate human rights violations or Chechnya’s opaque finances. There are no independent regional politicians who can ask the Kremlin why it spends its taxes elsewhere. The governors of the 80 Russian regions are in fact appointed by Putin - the result of security laws enacted in 2004 during the Chechen war.

Silence on Chechnya

Courts are also under the control of the regime - and few prosecutors and judges would take on Kadyrov. Whoever he considers to be his enemy often disappears or dies under unexplained circumstances, such as the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was shot in 2006 or the human rights activist Natalia Estemirova who was murdered in 2009. It is repeatedly claimed that Sharia is unofficially applied in Chechnya - but who would investigate such allegations?

There are still some brave investigative media out there, like Novaya Gazeta. In 2017, she exposed the mistreatment and torture of homosexuals under Kadyrov's regime. But what use is such research if there is no authority to investigate further?

Chechnya is in many ways a place outside of Russia, an issue that neither the Kremlin nor the divided and weak opposition want to raise. When - or rather, if - democracy returns to Russia one day, the Chechen legacy will be one of the most difficult and painful that Putin's successor has to deal with - not least to avoid another war.

In the meantime, Russia and Putin must hold out in the shadow of the war that so many thought would solve the "Chechen problem".