Ramzan Kadyrov, Russia's most controversial and outspoken politician, could no longer be quiet. In a series of statements just days into the New Year, Kadyrov and members of his inner circle viciously denounced members of Russia’s pro-Western opposition. In language reminiscent of the Stalin era—they called their adversaries “lackeys,” “traitors,” and “enemies of the people”—they said things that even Russian President Vladimir Putin has been reluctant to mention out loud. For doing so, Kadyrov won applause around the country.

Kadyrov is an outsized personality and has courted controversy since he became leader of Russia’s Chechen Republic in 2007 at the age of 30, succeeding his assassinated father. He is famous for his lavish lifestyle, his menagerie of tigers and ostriches, and his boastful and violent threats against his enemies, who range from human rights activists to Islamist rebels to the editors of Charlie Hebdo magazine.

Alexander Baunov
Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Kadyrov’s years of running Chechnya as a personal fiefdom have depended on his close relationship with Putin. As long as Kadyrov was the main guarantor of peace in Chechnya, Putin would let him be. But the balance in the relationship between Moscow and Grozny, the capital city in which Kadyrov is ensconced, has changed. Busy tightening their control over every aspect of Russian life, Moscow’s elite have been increasingly looking to subordinate Chechnya to Putin and, especially, to Russia’s bureaucratic and administrative apparatus. For too long, the argument goes, Kadyrov has been allowed to run things his own way. Their desire to rein him in reached new heights last year, after Kadyrov and the people around him were blamed for the murder of Boris Nemtsov, the liberal grandee. As the gory details were released, Moscow worried that the Chechen leader was out of control.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, December 10, 2015.

A decade or so ago, the goal of making Chechnya a region like all others in Russia would have seemed insane. Routine administration was simply impossible in a region devastated by two wars and a prolonged period of anarchy, during which a large proportion of the male population had taken up arms against federal Russian armed forces. But the republic has changed immensely in the last decade. Its citizens started enjoying peace and consumerism. And they know that Kadyrov is more beholden to the Russian state. They are less afraid, and less tempted to disappear into the hills and join the jihadists of the radical Islamist Caucasus Emirate, or its new rival in the region, the Islamic State (ISIS). In short, a decade of peace has reduced Kadyrov's status at home and reduced him to the level of the heads of Russia’s other regions. 

And that brings us back to Kadyrov’s loud demarche in the silence of Russia’s long winter holidays. His value in the Russian system has declined, and he is looking for ways to make up for his loss in power as a regional politician by asserting himself as a figure on the national stage. To that end, his denunciations of “Western sympathizers” were heard with enthusiasm by Russians who believe that enemies—both Western liberals and Islamist radicals—are trying to destroy Russia, and want to see Moscow take decisive action.

In the battle against Islamists, Kadyrov insists, Chechnya is key. The region, as he told the newspaper Izvestia, has been “stained by a bloody war.” It deserves special care and attention—and perhaps even some thanks for helping repel ISIS invaders who are knocking at Russia’s gates. Meanwhile, in the battle against Western liberals, Kadyrov, a real patriot, is not afraid to speak the truth.

With his remarks, the Chechen leader got the result he wanted: condemnation from the usual suspects, including an opposition deputy in Krasnoyarsk, journalists, and human rights defenders—in short, those of whom the public and the Putin regime is already suspicious. And so, at a moment when the Russian governmental system is near a breaking point, unpleasant conversations about the leader of Chechnya can be postponed....

This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs.

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