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Feb 22, 2012 | 13:49 GMT

5 mins read

Russia's New Chechnya Problem

The political clan system that Russian leader Vladimir Putin spent a decade building has fallen apart. Amid the disarray, Chechnya has been left without a manager in the Kremlin. Vladislav Surkov — himself half-Chechen — had served as Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's handler, but Surkov has been demoted and Kadyrov has indicated that he could step down as president. This jeopardizes Chechnya's stability at an inconvenient time for Putin, who will have to work with numerous political players to maintain calm in the historically restive region.

With the Kremlin's internal political system in disarray, many important Russian projects are being reassessed. However, no strong Kremlin figure has been placed in charge of handling the volatile region of Chechnya. This puts pressure on the political and social stability of a previously war-torn region — and places its security situation in doubt — at a time when the Kremlin has other problems to address.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin spent a decade designing an intricate political system inside the Kremlin that divides responsibilities and strategic sectors between two key clans: the siloviki and the civiliki. This system was meant to help Putin retain control while balancing the pre-eminent need to gear policy toward national security with the need to implement liberal reforms in certain economic sectors. However, over the past year, policy changes and Kremlin infighting have torn the system apart and left the two clans in ruins.

While the security-focused siloviki has mostly reconsolidated, the top figures in the economy- and society-focused civiliki have either left the Kremlin or been sidelined. This has jeopardized the large projects and portfolios overseen by the civiliki. The Kremlin is already reassessing civiliki-led economic plans for modernization and privatization, and rumors in Moscow indicate that civiliki-created youth groups, such as the controversial Nashi, could be disbanded or restructured. Chechnya is one of the more critical portfolios the civiliki oversaw. That portfolio is now in question because Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin figure who oversaw the region's social policies and president, lost a great deal of influence within the Russian government and was demoted.

Surkov's Role

After two major wars in the region in the past two decades, administering policy concerning Chechnya is a fraught endeavor. When Russia declared an end to the Second Chechen War in 2009, the Kremlin clans split responsibilities for the region. The siloviki oversaw the Russian military's role in the region and the operation of the oil sector under Rosneft, but the civiliki's role of overseeing the region's political and social policies has proved far more important. Responsibility for this role fell to Surkov, former deputy chief of the presidential administration. Surkov is one of Putin's most valued advisers in the Kremlin and is considered by many as one of the most powerful men in the country. Surkov became the most powerful Kremlin figure connected with Chechnya, a role that would seem a better fit for someone with a position in security, because he is half-Chechen and has demonstrated an aptitude for complex solutions to complicated problems.

Moscow was able to curtail the Chechen insurgency toward the end of the Second Chechen War by shifting strategies in two main ways. First, Russia stopped using conventional Russian troops against the insurgents. In their place, Moscow created a Chechen fighting force composed of former militants and gave them Russian military counterinsurgency training and a country for which to fight. This hybrid force could then operate alongside the Russian military while using more unconventional tactics to combat the insurgency. Second, Russia elevated two families who previously had fought against Russia in Chechnya into positions directing the region's security and politics. The Yamadayev family worked within Chechnya's various security forces, while the Kadyrovs took over the presidency and political structures. Over the years, many of the Yamadayev brothers were killed, leaving Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov to consolidate power in both areas, including overseeing the 40,000-strong Chechen forces. Surkov has protected Kadyrov's power in the region.

Although Russia's strategy shifts quashed any meaningful insurgency in Chechnya, many in Moscow, particularly among the siloviki, worry about the existence of a large, well-trained Chechen fighting force. Some are also concerned that this force is primarily under the command of Kadyrov, whose Kremlin handler (Surkov) reportedly has changed political loyalties several times.

A Post-Surkov Chechnya?

Besides Chechnya, Surkov oversaw the Kremlin's social and political policies. As Surkov himself has admitted, his leadership in this regard failed, leading to mass protests across the country. It became clear in December 2011 that Surkov would be ejected from power; he even offered his resignation, saying he did not understand the changing political mood in Russia. Just before he was to step down, however, Surkov traveled to Chechnya to meet with Kadyrov — a reminder of his connection to the volatile region. Stratfor sources in Moscow say that this was when Putin decided to demote Surkov rather than remove him from the Kremlin entirely. Surkov's loss of title is not the issue; the problem is that he has essentially lost power over groups in the Kremlin, with many reports indicating that he is now being shunned politically. Surkov's influence in Chechnya is his only remaining leverage.

Keeping Surkov in the Kremlin has not completely diffused the threat to Chechnya's current calm. Although Kadyrov's benefactor still holds a position in the Kremlin, he is no longer able to protect Kadyrov and preserve his unrestricted power over Chechnya. This means the siloviki could push their interest in divesting power in Grozny — and over the structure of Chechen forces — from a single person.

Since Surkov's fall from power, Kadyrov has begun to indicate that he could eventually step down as president. There is currently no real alternative to Kadyrov's rule in Chechnya, nor is there any guarantee that Chechen forces would be loyal to any other leader. Chechnya is not ripe for a peaceful transition of power, so Putin will have to ensure that Kadyrov and Surkov feel secure enough to prevent any break from the current peace. For fear of a larger destabilization in Chechnya in the future, Putin will restrain those in the Kremlin who want to change the status quo.

Russia's New Chechnya Problem

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