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Analysis & Opinion
16.08.10 Titular Power Vertical
By Tom Balmforth

At the end of last week Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov announced that he would forfeit his title of “president,” and that the five other North Caucasus presidents would be following suit. Analysts cannot agree on whether the Kremlin is pressuring regional heads to shed another vestige of regional autonomy – their own distinctive titles – to further tighten up its coveted “power vertical.” But as nationalist sentiment is stoked in Chechnya and Islamization in the republic grows, the Kremlin will hardly be displeased to see Kadyrov being so deferential.

On Thursday Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov told the Chechen Parliament that he wanted to change his official title from “president.” “In a single state there should be only one president, and in [federal] subjects the top figures can call themselves the head of the republic, head of the administration, or governor,” reads a statement on Kadyrov’s Web site. His press secretary later said that his boss had not ruled out assuming the title of “Imam of the Chechen Republic.” Estimates put the cost of the name change at between three and ten million rubles ($100,000 and $300,000) and it could be implemented as soon as September.

Some analysts say Kadyrov’s move isn’t the result of puppeteering by the Kremlin, which has consistently sought to tighten up its “power vertical” political model. If Moscow was using Kadyrov to foment the Russia-wide standardization of its numerous regional titles, then this move would have been buttressed by new legislative drafts issued in the Russian capital, said Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional politics for the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It would have been logical for the Kremlin to come up with a draft which makes titles used in regions uniform – not only with regard to the naming of leaders, but also with naming regional assemblies. To my mind the move looks more like Kadyrov’s own initiative, and a desire to show his loyalty to the Kremlin through pretty cheap means,” said Petrov.

Observers may have originally seen the proposal – particularly the idea of calling Kadyrov “imam” – as part of the ongoing effort in Chechnya to Islamize the republic and create a state-friendly ideological alternative to the insurgency’s extreme version of Islam. But Petrov played this idea down: “The Islamization is already going on. It doesn’t matter what they call him.”

Meanwhile, Kadyrov’s proposal has apparently caught on among the leaders of Russia’s troubled North Caucasus region. First to agree publically was Kabardino-Balkaria President Arsen Kanakov. “The majority of citizens of the Russian Federation associate these names [of president] with the federal organs of power,” Kanakov reasoned. Next to do so was Karachayevo-Cherkessia President Boris Ebzeev, who said on Sunday that Kadyrov’s “idea itself is very well-timed and truthful; it is related to the fact that the word ‘president’... has acquired some sacral sense both in the Russian language and in our political system,” RIA Novosti reported.

Indeed, all of the remaining presidents in the region – those from Adygeya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia – have reached the same conclusion, according to Kadyrov’s press secretary. “In the second half of [Friday] Kadyrov had a phone conversation with the heads of the republics during which he talked about his initiative. Everyone supported it, and now they plan to appeal jointly to the State Duma,” Kadyrov’s spokesman said.

But officials in Moscow deny than any such appeal for changing the federal law is actually necessary. Speaking to the Kommersant business daily over the weekend, Alexander Moskalets, the head of the State Duma Committee for Constitutional Legislation, said that while under federal law all regional heads are equal before the law and equally accountable, what they call themselves “is a matter of their taste and thoughts.”

And whilst acknowledging that the Kremlin does have an interest in increasing central federal power over Russia’s 83 regions, Moscow officials claim that regional heads have not been coerced into making decisions. "The issue of unifying the regional leaders' titles has long been on the political agenda… but it needs to be done voluntarily," an unidentified Kremlin official was quoted as saying on Friday by RIA Novosti.

But Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, is adamant that the move was orchestrated by the Kremlin in order to bring the North Caucasus more to heel, to further the Kremlin’s goal of creating a “unitarian,” (i.e. more centralized) Russian state. The unpredictability of Kadyrov’s behavior, as well as his attempts to stoke Chechen nationalism and the unrivaled regional power that he yields, have made him a target for the Kremlin’s tightening of the power vertical because he is seen as a loose cannon. “Kadyrov always emphasizes that Chechnya is a ‘special’ part of Russia. He is prepared to do anything he wants to. Moreover, there are rumors that he has a misunderstanding with North Caucasus Federal District Head Alexander Khloponin. That’s why he was chosen by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev to be the first to say that he doesn’t want to be president and that he wants to change his title,” said Malashenko.

And analysts agree that Chechnya under Kadyrov barely resembles a Russian federal subject. “I think that Chechnya today operates entirely outside Russia’s legal framework. It has nothing to do with Russia’s law, not to mention international human rights obligations. It is also far removed from Russia’s cultural framework. It basically functions as an enclave where the only rules which are applicable are dictated by Karydov himself,” said Tatyana Lokshina, a Chechnya expert at Human Rights Watch Moscow.

In July Grozny saw drive-by attacks by unknown assailants who fired paintballs at Chechen women not wearing a veil. “I don't know who is responsible, but when I find them, I will express my gratitude,” Kadyrov said at the time. “Some of the rules which he deigns applicable do have to do with Islamic law. But I would generally collectivize those rules dictated by Kadyrov as a bit of a weird combination of other Chechen customs with elements of sharia, and even some elements of Soviet ideology,” said Lokshina.

But for all the republic’s autonomy, Malashenko dismissed the suggestion that Kadyrov could possibly become the “Imam of the Chechen Republic.” “It’s impossible. Even some deputies from the Russian State Duma have said that it is not possible because we are a secular state. Religion is divided from policy,” he said.
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