Said Magomed Kakiev: Chechnya`s Strongman in Waiting?
Kevin Daniel Leahy
Writing in the August 15 issue of Novaya gazeta, the veteran Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, suggested that a number of influential pro-Moscow figures in Chechnya are becoming increasingly exasperated with the antics of the republic’s incumbent premier, Ramzan Kadyrov. Indeed, the journalist went so far as to claim that a mutiny, purportedly led by local pro-Moscow warlords, Said Magomed Kakiev and Movladi Baisarov, was already underway against Kadyrov. Observers have identified various tensions within the current pro-Moscow regime almost since its inception. However, it would seem that these nascent tensions are now coalescing into something resembling a “loyal opposition” to Kadyrov.
BACKGROUND: The first overt indication of tension within the pro-Moscow ranks came at the end of April, when troops loyal to Kadyrov and those of his nominal superior, President Alu Alkhanov, exchanged gun-fire in downtown Grozny. Then, in late May, reports surfaced about a confrontation that had taken place between Kadyrov’s forces and those of another pro-Moscow stalwart, Movladi Baisarov, when the latter’s guard deigned to detain a young relative of Ramzan’s as he was leaving Grozny. The sour state of relations between these respective parties had previously been remarked upon. However, the novelty of these incidents lies in the way in which they were resolved; or rather, who resolved them. The April shoot-out ceased only when Said Magomed Kakiev’s “Zapad” (West) battalion intervened in the fracas, thereby physically separating the protagonists. Also, the incident involving Kadyrov and Baisarov – at the height of which Kadyrov’s militiamen actually laid siege to the latter’s compound – was resolved thanks in large part to Kakiev’s timely intervention. In both of these episodes, therefore, Kakiev emerged as a capable counter-weight to Kadyrov’s characteristic impetuosity. In essence, his battalion functioned as a peace-keeping force during these incidents. However, if Politkovskaya’s aforementioned account is true, Kakiev might soon decide to confront, rather than simply restrain, the controversial pro-Moscow prime minister. Accordingly, Kadyrov is presently facing a mutiny of sizable proportions, with members of the republic’s so-called “oil regiment”, elements within the local Emergency Situations Ministry, members of the republic’s OMON unit, as well as considerable numbers of servicemen in all four GRU-affiliated ethno-battalions now refusing to recognize his authority. In addition, Kakiev and Baisarov have reportedly been joined by another prominent dissident, the leader of the recently created “Yug” (South) battalion, Muslim Ilyasov. Kakiev’s profile has been bolstered somewhat by the incidents referred to above, but he nevertheless remains something of an enigma. His past, although less checkered than some of his pro-Moscow colleagues, is certainly no less remarkable. Unlike many other contemporary pro-Moscow luminaries like Kadyrov and Sulim Yamadaev, Kakiev has never been associated with Chechen separatism. Indeed, he has remained an unflinching advocate of Russo-Chechen unity throughout his career, describing himself as a proud Russian army officer. In this respect, the contrast between Kakiev and Kadyrov could hardly be any starker. The latter is openly contemptuous of the Russian military, and is said to be privately disdainful of Russia (and Russians) in general. With this in mind, and given the considerable domestic trials he is reportedly now facing, Kadyrov is fast coming to be regarded as an increasingly isolated figure within Chechnya’s pro-Moscow political arena. While it would be quite premature to state categorically that President Putin has decided to dispense with Kadyrov as his point-man in the republic, it is safe to say that Ramzan’s position is now considerably more ambiguous than it was six months ago.
IMPLICATIONS: Assuming that Kadyrov is becoming a spent force in Chechnya, would Kakiev’s credentials suggest him as Moscow’s strongman in waiting? First and foremost, his impeccable record as an opponent of separatism, coupled with his self-styled image as a Russian patriot would obviously endear him to Putin and his inner circle. Similarly, with respect to the Russian military, these qualities would certainly assure him the somewhat qualified status of being, in their view, the least untrustworthy “loyal” Chechen field commander. Also, Kakiev’s tendency to eschew the political limelight might work in his favour. In recent months, a series of political demarches from Kadyrov have caused some embarrassment for his handlers in Moscow. The young prime minister is floundering in his attempts to kindle his fledgling political career while simultaneously striving to retain his status as local strongman. In fact, his recent travails suggest that it may be impossible to reconcile these two roles. This realization would hardly perturb Kakiev, who seems content to project himself as a bluff military man, quite unconcerned with the inanities of political office. Should he at some point assume the role of Chechnya’s gendarme, therefore, Kakiev would presumably be content to leave the political side of affairs to Alkhanov – something Kadyrov has resolutely refused to do. Indeed, if certain reports are to be believed, an Alkhanov-Kakiev axis (also including Sulim Yamadaev and the former mayor of Grozny, Bislan Gantemirov) is already in the process of being formed. An alliance between Alkhanov and Kakiev would seem eminently logical given their shared history as career opponents of separatism. Unlike the other three ethno-battalions, “Zapad” contains no known amnestied separatists. In fact, Kakiev is an avowed opponent of the amnesty process in general, asking: “How can those who have been fighting us be utterly forgiven?” In this respect, he is certainly more inflexible than Kadyrov who readily accepted former separatists into his security structures. Kakiev apparently shares the zero-sum mentality of the Russian Generals with respect to the war against the separatists. Indeed, his hatred for the separatist president, Doku Umarov, is visceral, and personal: Kakiev blames Umarov and the late Ruslan “Hamzat” Gelaev for perpetrating the so-called “Dagestanskaya Street massacre” during the rebel occupation of Grozny in August 1996, in which thirty Kakievsty were allegedly murdered despite a promise of safe passage from the rebels. Kakiev, it should be said, is himself accused of egregious human rights violations.
The prospect of negotiating with the separatist leadership is nevertheless as much an anathema to him as it is to Putin and the military. However, Kakiev does have some drawbacks as a potential strongman. For one thing, he does not possess the same clan-connections enjoyed by Kadyrov – connections which have underpinned the Russian strategy of “Chechenization” over the past several years. Furthermore, should Kakiev at some point receive the Kremlin’s blessing as its Chechen enforcer-in-chief (either explicitly or implicitly), one might well expect certain other pro-Moscow field commanders to react with jealousy and suspicion.
CONCLUSIONS: While it would be fanciful to sound Kadyrov’s political death knell just yet, his long-term viability depends almost solely on how quickly he learns to temper his evolving political persona. His carefully crafted relationship with Putin will doubtless buy him some time in this regard, but the indications from Chechnya itself are that Ramzan may well be ousted from “below”, as it were, before he is from “above”. The successive incidents catalogued at the outset show that there is, in fact, a loyal opposition to Kadyrov within Chechnya; and, perhaps more importantly, that there are others as capable of maintaining order as he. Mr. Kadyrov should perhaps hope that these apparent conclusions have escaped the notice of President Putin and his confidantes. Else, his political star could fall as spectacularly as it rose.
Kevin Daniel Leahy holds a postgraduate degree in International Relations from University College Cork, Ireland.
First published in the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, (http://www.cacianalyst.org)