The assassination of Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov on May 9 is not only a major set back for Vladimir Putin's designs to enforce the Kremlin's understanding of peace in the war torn republic, it is also emblematic of how ill-conceived "road maps" to create peace in the world can turn into tragic dead ends.
Up until late Sunday morning, Putin appeared to have much to celebrate. Sworn in to serve a second term as president two days before, as well as reviewing military parades demonstrating Russia's new sense of pride during the country's most important national holiday - celebrating victory in the Second World War. News of Kadyrov's death puts in stark relief Putin's first-term policy toward Chechnya and the fundamental weakness of Russia's military. Instead of celebrating victory, Putin has been forced to deal with his defeats.
The Kremlin's Man and His War
Kadyrov, a highly controversial figure and a constant assassination target, was surrounded by a security organization second only to the team that protects Putin. This writer, interviewing Kadyrov in Moscow last summer, experienced firsthand the apparatus that was supposed to make the Chechen president untouchable. It was impressive - almost insanely paranoiac - and time-consuming.
As many high-profile killings are never solved in Russia, the perpetrators of this terrorist act may never be brought to justice. Identifying them could be particularly difficult in Kadyrov's case, as many individuals and groups are more than pleased to see him removed from Chechnya's political stage.
Kadyrov, a religious scholar by training, called on Chechnya's Muslims to fight a jihad (holy war) against the Russian army during the first Chechen War. Claiming he was concerned about Islamist tendencies among some fighters, he later switched sides to support Moscow's agenda in Chechnya. Since 1996, his former allies have branded him a traitor and sworn to destroy him and his regime.
When Russian troops re-entered Chechnya in 1999, then prime minister and soon-to-be president Vladimir Putin embarked upon a "road map" policy that could be described as "Chechenization" or "Kadyrovization" of the conflict-ridden republic.
Chechenization /Kadyrovization essentially meant that Kadyrov would be given widespread powers in Chechnya, as well as financial and military support, high-level international recognition and a blind eye to just about anything it took to completely root out dissent against his rule.
The Kremlin made good on this deal with Kadyrov. Last year's constitutional referendum in Chechnya on the republic's continued association with Russia and presidential election were marred with irregularities, with Kadyrov eventually running unopposed. Kadyrov returned the favor by appealing to the Arab world not to fund terrorist groups determined to destabilize his rule.
Meeting Kadyrov in person gave a clear indication of how he ruled Chechnya -- with absolute conviction that he was right and the word "compromise" absent from his political vocabulary. This made him many enemies at home, in Moscow and in the world at large.
In Chechnya, Kadyrov and his clan - particularly his son Ramzan who handled his personal security - terrorized elements of the population suspected of disloyalty or of sympathy with terrorist groups. Kadyrov and his clan were widely criticized for monopolizing the war-torn economy for personal enrichment.
In Moscow, many had serious reservations that Kadyrov had de facto separated Chechnya from Russia with Moscow footing the bill and having to take the political heat for Kadyrov's unilateral actions. In a telling and possibly fatal criticism, members of Russia's security establishment worried that Kadyrov was too willing to accept the surrender of fighters against his rule, later even accepting them within his own security forces -- some of whom could have been moles bent on his personal destruction.
Internationally, Kadyrov was always poorly understood. In seeing him only as the strongman of Chechnya - which he was - observers overlooked other important elements of his very complex personality. He was truly committed to Chechnya, not simply an occupying governor in the service of the Kremlin. Having memories of the Chechen exile in Kazakhstan ordered by Stalin during World War II, he had a very practical understanding of the ties that bound Russia and Chechnya despite strong historical antagonisms. He also firmly believed that Islam was an important component of Russian history. He was proud to be both Russian and Chechen. Ultimately, this may have been the reason why he was killed. If true, there is no better indictment of the Kremlin's recent policy toward Chechnya - Kadyrov was both Russian and Chechen.
More Kadyrovization to Come?
On the day of the assassination, Putin was seen in the Kremlin on Russian television with Ramzan Kadyrov at his side, promising retribution of the killing. Later, Putin made a very brief trip to Chechnya to re-assure Chechen civil and military authorities that the Kremlin was prepared to support the regime during the time of leadership transition. Putin has promised that over a thousand more troops will be sent to the republic.
In what looks like a continuation of Kadyrovization, 27-year-old Ramzan was made a deputy minister in the Chechen government, his alleged expertise is security and military operations. Too young to be made president, many fear the younger Kadyrov will embark on a rampage seeking revenge for his father's killing. What role Ramzan will play in Chechnya's future is unclear at this point. However, there is little doubt the Kremlin desires as much political continuity as possible in Chechnya. For most observers of Chechnya, continued Kadyrovization of the republic would only invite the same kind of politically motivated killing seen on Sunday.
Putin's Dilemma and Road Maps to Nowhere
Over the past few years the idea of a "road map" to solve violent conflicts has very much been in vogue. However, in most cases, "road maps" are euphemisms for governments forcing peaceful settlements of conflicts. The assassination of Kadyrov and the Kremlin's approach concerning Chechnya is now compared to the ever more complex American activities in Iraq. Indeed, there are similarities. Both Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush understand well that toppling a government is not particularly difficult. However, creating new puppet regimes under the thumb of the military is nearly impossible without a modicum of popular local support.
Both Putin and Bush gravely underestimated the key issue of legitimacy when attempting to undertake nation-building. In Chechnya and Iraq nation-building is a fact, but the kinds of nations coming into being are not what the Russia and the U.S. want. Nations can be built on hatred of occupiers and religious extremism.
What is so distressing about the road maps for Chechnya and Iraq is the fact that once road maps are initiated, it is almost impossible to take a detour. There is the oft-mentioned argument that turning back engenders enormous lost of international and domestic political prestige. While true, it is the security situation on the ground that is at risk if military support ends for weak or non-existing regimes. If the U.S. left Iraq now, civil wars would undoubtedly start. If Russia left Chechnya now, Russia's sovereignty would be taking a grave risk.
To date, the logic of the road maps for Chechnya and Iraq has changed from complete regime change to a "do not lose" political strategy. This is where Russia and the United States have much in common, as well as the civilian populations of Chechnya and Iraq. Both Russia and the U.S. assumed that failure was not an option. The people of Chechnya and Iraq, as a result, are left with the only option of failure.
Putin, for all his very real successes as president, has a flat learning curve when it comes to Chechnya. The people of Chechnya sorely want peace; it is up to Putin to make that happen. However, pursuit of creating a clone of Kadyrov (or support of his son) is a road map for Chechnya that will again lead to a dead end. At a time when the U.S. should be seriously reconsidering its road map for Iraq, one hopes, given the events of last Sunday, that Kadyrovization by a different name is not on the agenda.
Peter Lavelle is an independent Moscow-based analyst and the author of the electronic newsletter on Russia "Untimely Thoughts" www.untimely-thoughts.