As conflict in Ukraine continues - what of Chechnya?

Recently, Russian socio-political discourse has been buzzing on a new topic, widely discussed in Russian society and by experts, but less so by the political elite and by international experts.

The topic of discussion is rather significant and serious, and could mark the beginning of a new trend in the relationships between Chechnya and Russia, Chechnya and the Kremlin, and Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus.

In April, a Chechen man was killed in Grozny while being arrested by police from neighbouring Stavropol. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader was incensed, declaring that 'they should respect us', and ordered the Chechen security forces to 'shoot to kill' law enforcement officers from other regions of Russia if they operate in Chechnya without prior notification and without cooperation with the Chechen authorities. He also complained that Chechens are not given the right to conduct similar anti-terrorist operations in neighbouring Ingushetia, which has seen an inflow of extremist groups from Chechnya.

With this statement, Kadyrov, in effect, let the Kremlin and the whole of Russia know that continuing on from his delineation of economic, cultural, religious and other frontiers in Chechnya, he is now creating political and, it could be argued, state borders too.

The special status that was granted to post-war Chechnya means it receives federal funding at levels many times higher than other parts of Russia, and allows it to implement laws that contradict Russia's constitution, such as polygamy and forced introduction of external symbols of religiosity. Public life is regulated by a balance between law and the interpretation of law in terms of a traditional social system. From recently having been a secular republic, it is now not possible for a woman to enter a state institution with her head uncovered.

The essence of this special status arises from an agreement between Putin and Kadyrov to ensure loyalty to the Russian authorities in exchange for a limitless budget. This arrangement works brilliantly. In 2004 Kadyrov, despite lacking many qualities considered essential for entering the political elite, went to meet Putin in the Kremlin, not standing on ceremony, dressed in a blue tracksuit and trainers. It is said that he and his guard played football with a matchbox on the gleaming floor of the waiting hall before his meeting. And from that moment began his challenging journey as head of the rebellious republic that had been bombed and almost obliterated from the face of the earth.

One hears the most extraordinary stories and frequently unbelievable rumours about Kadyrov. For example, it is said that he played football with the heads of his opponents. The list of serious allegations against him from human rights defenders is vast. However, it is also well known that people who find themselves in difficult circumstances turn to him for help and he is eager to respond. It should also be acknowledged that post-war restoration has taken place under his watch.

In the early 2000s, when working as part of a post-war humanitarian mission I could only cross the Chechen border with a UN escort and an armoured car, accompanied by armed guard with extreme safety rules. While in contrast, a couple of weeks ago my artist daughter went there for the day with a Belgian expert on modern art to meet other young artists.

Under Kadyrov, Chechnya has become one of the safest republics in the North Caucasus. People from other North Caucasian republics go to Chechnya to live and work. The Chechen authorities, and Kadyrov himself, respond vigorously to the oppression and xenophobia that their compatriots face in Russia. This has increased their level of protection, which is not the case for those who originate from other Caucasian republics.

In this context, Kadyrov's popularity in the North Caucasus is growing fast. The changes that have taken place in Chechnya over the last decade are highly respected. Moreover, frustrated by social stagnation, and by their incompetent and corrupt ruling elites, other people of the North Caucasus frequently openly express a desire to have a strong, young, independent and just leader like Kadyrov. And never, of course, does the talk turn to the price that has been paid for all this.

It is difficult to guess what it is going on in Kadyrov's head, but his recent statement appeared to be probing his opportunities for the foreseeable future. He understands full well that the Russian public and the Kremlin are not happy about this, even if they do not comment officially. He could interpret this silence as a sign that he can continue with his strategy to gradually delineate borders as an independent state. It is clear that he understands well that whatever discontent with him within the Russian security establishment and the Kremlin, he is not expecting them to confront him at this time, as long as Russia is involved in a conflict with Ukraine that is far from settled.

Nobody today can predict trends in the North Caucasus, which is very different from Russia on account of the predominance of traditional social structures, and the extent that they influence political institutions. A hard life has taught this unsophisticated and cocky young man that change happens not through decisions taken, but through a patient process. In his life, he has been in a courageous and brutal war against Russia, shoulder to shoulder with his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, and then led a process of recovery from ruin in his homeland by means of an unending and uncontrolled financial inflow from Russia. Now a purposeful effort can be made towards statehood.

Moreover, the longer the conflict with Ukraine goes on, the longer the Kremlin's silence can be relied upon and thus the chance to set in train a sustained long-term process. Who knows what place in this process the energetic, open-to-compromise, and ambitious Ramzan Kadyrov will take.