There is a widening gap between Russian and American values, as showcased in the latest scandal surrounding Chechnya. If this gap is allowed to widen further, it could hamper the resumption of ties.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, rear left, wearing a Russian military uniform, salutes during celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, in Chechnya's capital Grozny. Photo: AP

It is commonly thought that the West needs Russia, in particular in the fight against radical Islam. After all, Islamic State has been declared a serious threat to world peace and even to the very existence of Western civilization. But given that Russia has been turning a blind eye to internal developments within Chechnya – including some that appear to violate its own constitution – can Russia still be trusted by the West to make an effective ally?

Chechnya has been a major newsmaker in Russia this past year. Since January, Russian media has reported extensively on a giant rally of hundreds of thousands of Chechens organized by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov against journalists from Paris-based satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo; highlighted the “Chechen trail” in the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov; and reported on the many versions of the standoff between Russia’s federal security forces and Kadyrov.

In the words of Radio Liberty commentator Sergei Medvedev, “In the information space Chechnya has eclipsed Ukraine, Donbas and Crimea.”

“The wedding of the century”

The most recent Chechen-related sensation was the “wedding of the century” between 57-year-old local police chief Nazhud Guchigov and 17-year-old Luiza Goylabieva. Russian media and social networks dubbed it “the most scandalous marriage of the century.” What happened exactly? Why was this family celebration not just outrageous, but a political event?

The furor arose not because the groom was three times older than his bride, but because he was already officially married to a woman roughly his own age — and polygamy in Russia is illegal.

Moreover, given that his new bride was a minor, the Chechen law enforcement officer could have been accused of pedophilia, especially if Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta is correct in its assertions. The newspaper, following a special investigation, asserted that Luiza did not want to marry him, but was forced into it by Guchigov, who put pressure on the family and even posted sentries in the region so that her relatives could not take her away.

But what, you may ask, has this got to do with politics? The fact is that the marriage was sanctioned — and personally attended — by Kadyrov. However, he did not give his consent immediately. To begin with, Russian human rights activists complained to Russian President Vladimir Putin that polygamy and underage marriage were against Russian law.

Kadyrov took a timeout. In recent months he has been in Moscow’s bad books, and therefore decided not to further antagonize his patron, Putin. But time went by and the wedding took place. It is quite obvious that Moscow gave the Chechen leader carte blanche, as in previous confrontations with his involvement.

First, the Kremlin made it clear that it still trusts Kadyrov and considers him the rightful ruler of Chechnya, able to resolve all local issues at his sole discretion. And second, Moscow essentially granted Chechnya the right to live according to its own Islamic norms, even if they violate federal law. At the same time the Kremlin pointedly distanced itself from all discussion of the Chechen incident.

“Weddings are not our business,” retorted Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, in response to a journalist’s request for comment.

Chechen Kheda Goilabiyeva, second right, stands after her wedding with Chechen police officer Nazhud Guchigov, in Chechnya's provincial capital Grozny, Russia, Saturday, May 16, 2015. Photo: AP

Russia is becoming Chechnya, not the other way around

“Following the Khasavyurt Accord and the second war, Chechnya is not becoming Russia, but Russia is becoming Chechnya,” says human rights activist and member of the Presidential Human Rights Council Svetlana Gannushkina.

Renowned political analyst of the Moscow Carnegie Center Alexei Malashenko goes even further in his findings.

“The recent wedding in Chechnya confirms the possibility and even the inevitability of an ‘Islamic space’ within the Russian Federation,” he says. “In this context the question arises as to the purpose of separatism and the struggle for a caliphate and emirate if an Islamic way of life can be had inside Russia, one that happens to violate the constitution. We are seeing the creation of a de facto alternative legal space in which the norms of Islam can be established inside the Russian Federation in contravention of the constitution.”

According to Malashenko, it “could give Russian Islamists pause for thought.”

His conclusion is of no small importance, since Russia has declared that it is willing to cooperate with the United States and Europe in combating Islamic State and other radical Islamic groups that have stated their intention to fight the “infidels” on all continents.

How social and cultural values separate the US and Russia

But there are other reasons why such cooperation is highly problematic, stemming from the fundamentally different models of state development and disparities in the historical, cultural, legal and religious environments of Russia and the United States.

Take the way both nations approach an issue such as polygamy, as highlighted above in the Chechen example.

Polygamy is prohibited in the United States, as it is in Russia, although formally it is practiced in a number of states, particularly Utah. But there, matters of polygamy are not resolved at the state level, but in court.

As the result of one high-profile case that lasted three years, from 2011-2014, polygamy - which hitherto carried a prison sentence of up to five years - was struck off the list of state criminal offenses.

In Russia, it is a different story. Complex legal issues of this kind are resolved arbitrarily — by means of a presidential nod of the head or whisper in the ear, or simply by non-intervention in a particular conflict, which Kremlin aides interpret and convey to the interested parties.

This Russian tradition has seen a healthy revival of late. The discussion of ethical and legal issues has been joined by the spiritual spin-doctors of the Russian Orthodox Church, society’s binding force in the eyes of many.

Latching on to the signals from the Kremlin, the Church delivers its own, often paradoxical verdicts. For instance, the head of the Synodical Department for Church and Society Relations, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, views the debate surrounding the Chechen wedding as an information attack by opponents of the traditional family.

“It is curious that those who criticize polygamy in the North Caucasus are often in favor of same-sex marriage,” he stated.

“The Russian Orthodox Church is opposed to same-sex marriage, but shies away from polygamy,” writes prominent journalist Yulia Latynina on the matter.

The chorus of voices that sounded against the critics of the Chechen wedding included State Duma MPs. Elena Mizulina, head of the Duma Committee on Family, Women and Children Affairs, opposed the criminalization of polygamy.

True to form, in almost the same breath Mizulina broached another topic, which is on the agenda of many countries, including the United States, but is not a priority for Russia. The committee head proposed banning abortions in private clinics and excluding them from the system of compulsory health insurance.

“The problem of abortion exists, and involves aspects of a purely medical, moral and economic nature,” says writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya. “But the State Duma’s answer to everything is always prohibition.”

The problem of abortion has been a part of every U.S. presidential campaign for a number of years, and often marks the dividing line between supporters of liberal and conservative values. However, no one in the United States is seeking a legislative ban, which would undoubtedly provoke opposition among the largest segment of society.

How well does the United States really understand Russia?

Relations with the United States are not in poor shape because America does not understand Russia, but because, on the contrary, for the first time in 15 years it seems to understand Russia well,” wrote former Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Kunadze. The senior diplomat says that, first and foremost, the United States has become more aware of the Kremlin’s foreign policy objectives, in particular in respect of Ukraine. However, here relations have worsened rather than improved.

The gulf in understanding between Russia and America has perhaps grown wider in recent years, and pertains not only to foreign and domestic policy, but also the sphere of ethics and morality.

As the United States moves forward, erasing societal conflicts and outdated stereotypes, Russian society is failing to take the same types of progressive steps. In these circumstances, hopes for a new “reset” of relations, whatever the pragmatic interests of the opposing sides, are fading.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.