Politics 20 December 2021

Talk of North Caucasus secession angers Putin

Putin’s annual meeting earlier this month with members of Russia’s Human Rights Council led to an unexpected conflict. Prominent movie director Alexander Sokurov, who is known for his ties to Putin, unexpectedly suggested the president think about “letting go” of republics in the North Caucasus that do not wish to be a part of Russia. Putin responded by scolding Sokurov. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov also reacted with anger. When Sokurov began to receive threats, he publicly apologized.

  • Sokurov told the Human Rights Council that Russia’s foreign policy was too expensive to hold onto regions that do not want to be a part of Russia. He also said that Russians were increasingly unwelcome in the largely-Muslim North Caucasus, adding: “Let’s release all those who no longer want to live in a single state with us. We wish them luck. We wish good fortune to all these Padishahs.”
  • One of those to whom Sokurov was clearly referring was Kadyrov (earlier he had mentioned a territorial dispute between Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia that led to Chechnya gaining land and Ingush protestors receiving long prison terms).
  • The relationship between the federal authorities and the republics of the North Caucasus has long been complex. Broadly speaking, Moscow offers rich subsidies to these regions and turns a blind eye to how the local authorities rule their fiefdoms. In return, the republics guarantee good numbers for ruling party United Russia and Putin at the ballot box.
  • Putin is almost always calm in public encounters — and his connection with Sokurov goes back more than 30 years. Unusually, however, Putin responded sharply to Sokurov’s remarks. “I’ve known you for a long time and I have great respect for you,” he told the director. “You always speak sincerely, but far from always accurately. There are 2,000 different claims to Russia’s territory. Don’t look for trouble, as we say. This is something that needs to be approached very seriously… Before speaking, it’s important to think carefully. Many things are best brought out in the open, but there are other times when it is best to keep quiet.”
  • Kadyrov was first in the queue to take offense. On his Telegram channel he likened the director to a gossiping grannie. “Sokurov was too cowardly to mention my name but everyone knows who he is talking about. I’m not the president, I’m no padishah. I’m the head of the Republic of Chechnya,” Kadyrov wrote. He urged law enforcement to review Sokurov’s statement for evidence of extremism.
  • After Kadyrov’s post, Sokurov began receiving threats. It would be very interesting to know whether there was any further communication between Sokurov, Kadyrov and the Kremlin — but, unfortunately, nothing of the kind was reported. The only public follow-up was when Sokurov sent Friday an open letter to the Human Rights Committee in which he apologized to his fellow council members. “My friends are warning me that my life is in danger. The only guarantee of my safety lies in the president’s ability to prevent this radical outcome,” Sokurov wrote.
  • Public apologies to Kadyrov are nothing new in Russia: the Chechen leader’s entourage is always on the lookout for those who, in their opinion, have insulted Chechnya or the Caucasus. Sokurov did not formally address Kadyrov, but his letter was inevitably interpreted as a personal apology. Later, Putin’s press spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the director could rely on Putin’s protection, adding that “nothing had happened that required any kind of apology.”

Why the world should care: Every part of this story is revealing: both Putin’s reaction (crushing Chechen separatism and ‘rebuilding Russia’ after the 1990s are two pillars of his domestic image), and the way a conflict between Putin’s personal friend and the unpredictable Kadyrov was resolved.