The Dangers of Crossing a Strongman

The conflict that boiled over this week between Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and a powerful rival clan highlights some troubling logic in the Kremlin's pacification of Chechnya in recent years.

Kadyrov, whom President Vladimir Putin has named a Hero of Russia, seems to be winning a battle of egos with Sulim Yamadayev, another Hero of Russia who, like Kadyrov, is a former rebel who switched sides to fight with federal troops in Chechnya. A grateful Kremlin has rewarded Yamadayev and his two brothers, Ruslan and Badruddi. Sulim Yamadayev was allowed to head up the Defense Ministry's elite Vostok battalion in the republic, while Ruslan Yamadayev was elected to the State Duma in 2003 on the United Russia ticket.

In another apparent sign of gratitude, Badruddi Yamadayev -- who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for attempted murder in 2003 -- was granted an early release under unclear circumstances and somehow allowed to command a platoon in the Vostok battalion, Interfax reported.

Kadyrov, of course, has greater leverage in Moscow than the Yamadayev brothers, who are thought to enjoy the support of top generals distrustful of the Chechen president. He has good relations with both Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

Kadyrov, therefore, probably feels justified in his decision to unleash his fury on the Yamadayev clan after a convoy of Vostok battalion vehicles refused to yield to his motorcade Monday, resulting in several car collisions.

At least two Vostok soldiers have been killed since the standoff, the Yamadayevs' property has been searched, and Badruddi Yamadayev, who was leading the Vostok convoy, has been hit with charges that could land him in prison for five years.

Chechnya's parliament has demanded that the Defense Ministry expel Sulim Yamadayev from Vostok, which would make all Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry units in the republic manned by ethnic Chechens completely loyal to Kadyrov.

It is unclear what, if any, control the federal government would have in the republic if the local strongman's loyalists are calling the shots in military and police units that technically report to Moscow.

Kadyrov's press service issued a flurry of news releases accusing the Yamadayev brothers of murder, torture, extortion and kidnapping over the course of several years.

One may wonder why Kadyrov, whose own fighters have been accused by human rights activists of similar crimes, waited until now to make allegations against the Yamadayevs. A Kadyrov aide shed some light on the possible reasoning behind the delay. The Yamadayevs have been trying to oust Kadyrov, and the fender-bender became "the last straw," the aide told The Moscow Times.

The implicit, disturbing logic is that local commandos are free to kill, torture and kidnap people in Chechnya -- as long as they don't cross Kadyrov.