March 9th 2008 · Prague Watchdog / Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS

Chechens as Janissaries of the regime?

By Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh

The recent parliamentary and presidential elections, Putin’s high popularity rating and an apparently smooth transition to his successor, Medvedev, should not deceive the observer into viewing them as indicators of the country’s absolute stability.

While it is true that the rich have become even richer, and the emergent middle class has also benefited from the regime’s prosperity, the windfall of money is not merely of benefit to a comparatively small segment of Russian society – it continues to exercise its principal focus on a few regions and big cities. Provincial Russia continues to be mostly left behind. And there are also increasing numbers of displaced Russian youth who are ready for action, as the events at Kondopoga and Stavropol showed.

Of course, the real implication of those events can be debated. They and other similar instances of social and ethno-social tension may not indicate a serious upheaval – they may for the most part simply be isolated outbursts of a disorganized Russian populace. As a matter of fact, those who took part in the riots later admitted on the Internet that organization is not Russian’s strong point.

Still, the authorities remember the “Orange” revolutions in post-Soviet space and will certainly not ignore the possibility of a repetition of similar events in Russia, this time with a “Brownish” hue. The authorities could easily employ force, as was done in 1993 by Yeltsin, and by Putin at Kondopoga and Stavropol. Still, the absolute loyalty of the troops/OMON (riot police) in the case of a mass upheaval is not guaranteed.

In 1993 only a handful of Russian troops actually followed orders; others preferred to be passive observers. In Kondopoga, the police and OMON troops attacked the Russian rioters. At the same time, however, in Stavropol the OMON/police acted in solidarity with them. In fact, the Russian rioters justified their brawl with the Chechens by proclaiming that "Our police force is beaten!" The very fact that the authorities have not excluded the possibility of a serious upheaval and that the loyalty of law enforcement personnel and even troops could not be guaranteed in this situation compels the authorities to look at other options if possible back-up strategies fail.

There has recently been a stream of information which indicates that the authorities might well use loyal Chechens as janissarian forces of a sort, in the case of a conflict between the authorities and discontented Russians. For example, Russian nationalist Internet publications have spread rumours that the authorities have tried to fill vacancies in the police with minorities.

A strong signal that the authorities might use Chechens as a way of putting down Russian unrest was received in the fall of 2006 during the disturbances in Kondopoga in Karelia. The riot was sparked by a brawl in the town’s “Chaika” restaurant. During it, two Russians were killed, and this led to a major riot of ethnic Russians who started to beat up Chechens and, it appears, set shops owned by people from the Caucasus on fire. The authorities put down the riot, restored order and, one supposes, protected the Chechens. But the local Chechens were not impressed.

At that point, Ramzan Kadyrov, viceroy of Chechnya, made a surprising statement in which he said that he might well send Chechens to Karelia if the Chechens could not be protected. It is unlikely that Kadyrov would have made such a statement unless he were supported by Putin. Kadyrov also seems to have absolute immunity in tracking down and killing people far away from Chechnya who opposed him. Putin also seems to accept this. One could, of course, explain Putin’s benevolence to Kadyrov by Putin’s fear that Kadyrov’s removal might trigger a new war that Putin is anxious to avoid. Still, there is also another explanation.

In the semi-feudal arrangements of post-Soviet Russia, which in many ways were constructed as a feudal hierarchy of “kryshi” – overlord-protectors who engaged in complicated relations with their supervisors and vassals – immunity from persecution in one domain required a payoff: absolute loyalty to the suzerain. And Kadyrov, who always emphasized his absolute loyalty to Putin, followed this model closely. In fact, it fitted well with Chechen tradition, where a form of feudalistic tribalism has been preserved throughout most of modern history. Kadyrov implied that while he relied on Putin, Putin could also rely on him. And that was a good sign:Kadyrov’s Chechens could be the crack troops of the regime – and this could also be seen in the recent deployment close to the Georgian border of a Chechen detachment, as one of the Russian regime’s most reliable bodies of troops.

One might, of course, wonder why Putin should see Chechens and other people from the North Caucasus as his most reliable troops, when people from the North Caucasus are almost universally hated. In addition to being considered a source of terrorism and common law crimes, the minorities are disliked as an alien force that threatens the Slavic culture and ethnic make-up of Russia. But it is those qualities which have actually made Chechens valuable for the authorities in the case of a major conflict with ethnic Russians. And it is the Chechens who constitute the vast majority of the poor and especially the poor and restless youth.

It may be recalled that the Janissaries were mostly Slavs deeply hated by the majority of Muslim Turks. The same arrangement can be seen in the case of other regimes which assumed that they might experience trouble in dealing with the majority of the population. The Arab rulers in Egypt employed Turkic slave-warriors – the Mameluks. And, of course, the Bolsheviks relied heavily on Latvian and Chinese detachments. All of these forces were totally isolated from the majority of the population and were absolutely dependent on the rulers. Consequently, they could be used as crack troops in dealing with both foreign and, even more so, domestic threats.

All of these models do not mean that the present day Russians authorities see the Chechen janissaries as major forces which could deal with hypothetical major riots or uprisings. Indeed, it would be hard to predict the response of a Russian crowd to a mostly Chechen/North Caucasian OMON, especially if blood were to be shed. That might well infuriate a Russian crowd even more and solidify its resolve to get rid of the regime of “blacks ” and “Yids”.

Still, if all else failed the authorities might choose “Caucasians” as a last resort, and a Russian police/OMON would find itself unable to deal with a Russian crowd whose representatives did not share in the oil-and-gas prosperity of the upper middle classes of Putin’s, or a post-Putin, Russia. The very fact that Chechen janissaries might be the regime’s last resource might be the explanation or, at least, one of the explanations for the freedoms recently introduced by Kadyrov, and the other signs of Putin’s, as it were, twisted benevolence toward the Chechens.




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