Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov publicly announced that representatives of Russia’s non-systemic opposition were “enemies of the people” and should be punished. Will his comments result in a divide in Russian society ahead of upcoming elections?

Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov speaks at a meeting marking the Interior Ministry Officer Day in Chechnya's provincial capital Grozny, Russia, Tuesday, November 10, 2015. Photo: AP

On Jan. 13, the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, wrote on a regional parliamentary website that representatives of "the so-called non-systemic opposition" should be "prosecuted to the full extent of the law for their subversive activities." 

"The non-systemic opposition is trying to capitalize on the difficult economic situation. Such people should be treated as the enemies of the people," Kadyrov claimed. He was supported by the Chairman of the Chechen Parliament Magomed Daudov, the State Duma deputy from Chechnya Adam Delimkhanov and Senator Suleiman Geremeev.

Deciphering Kadyrov

This verbal assault made the Russian elite and the opposition’s legal counselors furious.  Even Ella Pamfilova, the Commissioner for Human Rights in Russia, used her official website to recommend that the leader of the Chechen Republic take a step back in his criticism of the opposition. She proceeded to describe Kadyrov's words as "senseless and harmful." 

Pamfilova said that such statements might cause civil unrest, and she would not want that to happen. Former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent 10 years in Russian jail, believes that Kadyrov's campaign is a demonstration of power and impunity that can result in confrontation within Russian society

"The boundary that separates the people from feeling that the government no longer protects them is very close. Those who have a sense of dignity will not be begging for mercy then. They will defend themselves. If necessary, they will take up arms," according to Khodorkovsky.

Dmitry Peskov, the Russian President's press spokesperson, simultaneously tried to distance himself from Kadyrov's words and explain the reasoning behind them. 

"Let us take notice: A close reading of Kadyrov's statement shows that he is talking about the non-systemic opposition. What does that imply? Those who are outside the country's legitimate political field - those whose activities make them outlaws and who are ready to break the law even if it hurts their country. That is how I interpreted that statement," Peskov shared. 

He emphasized that Kadyrov had not met with Russian President Vladimir Putin lately. Kadyrov also tried to explain himself after the heated discussion of his words. 

"I was not talking about the legitimate opposition that raises social, economic, housing and utilities issues!" he wrote on Instagram. Kadyrov claimed that his assessment of the opposition pertained to "those who left Russia and are dragging our country through the mud and defaming it from overseas." 

Emotions running high

Experts think that this statement could pursue several goals. 

Elena Shestopal, the chair of the Political Psychology Department at Lomonosov Moscow State University (MGU), draws a curious conclusion from the Chechen leader's words. She argues that Kadyrov was extremely emotional when he pronounced his judgment on the non-systemic opposition. 

Recommended: "The Kadyrov scandal: Fear and loathing in Chechnya"

"He has an explosive and hot-tempered personality, so we can assume that his statement was driven by his emotions. I do not think that it can be interpreted as a direct call to political repressions," she told Russia Direct.

Political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov, the president of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation, does not agree with Shestopal and argues that Kadyrov was pursuing very specific goals when he made his statement. 

"Even though there are definitely emotions and a hidden agenda here, we have not observed any events that could evoke such feelings. It is Kadyrov who is radicalizing his rhetoric, not the opposition," he says.

Kadyrov’s show of strength

Nikolai Svanidze, a TV reporter, historian and member of the Public Chamber of Russia, rationalized Kadyrov's behavior and decided that it had economic reasons behind it. 

"I would not put it past Kadyrov to use such methods to show his strength to the Kremlin in general and Putin personally. Currenty, the economic situation is worsening, and Chechnya is a subsidized region, so the money flow might dwindle. De facto this is a demonstration of his relevance in an attempt to keep the subsidies. This is a play staged for the Kremlin, a kind of a battle dance performed for the pleasure of the country’s leadership," says Svanidze. 

Vinogradov sees a lot more behind Kadyrov's outburst than just the economy. First, it is an attempt to show that he is the uncontested leader of Chechnya, the North Caucasus region and Russian Muslims, according to Vinogradov. Second, the head of Chechnya is trying to go on the offensive in the wake of the anniversary of the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov

Recommended: "How the Nemtsov Affair could reverberate in the North Caucasus"

"Kadyrov wants to issue a preventive response because Chechen authorities are possible suspects in this case. It is important for Kadyrov to show that he is above the rest, including the society and law enforcement that he has been butting heads with recently," Vinogradov explains. 

In spite of the Kremlin having to interpret the Chechen leader's choice statements, he is still doing a service to the authorities. 

"He uses direct threats and radical rhetoric to shift the opposition's attention to him and, thus, distract them from Putin and the government," Vinogradov thinks.

Kadyrov’s comments do more harm than good

Shestopal argues with Vinogradov by saying that such behavior inconveniences the Kremlin, for this emotional insult might split society because the phrase "the enemy of the people" is a reference to the Great Terror carried out under this slogan in the hopes of exposing and eradicating some obscure absolute evil. 

"Kadyrov evokes the image of the enemy of the people, and so he is appealing to people's base feelings. That is a dangerous path because this is an election year, and the Russian population will be stirred up by clamor from all different parties. Under such circumstances, the people need to be calmed down, not the other way around," Shestopal explains.

Peskov's attempts to remedy the situation likely mean that the authorities are afraid of a serious social divide.  

"He did not serve the President well. Peskov's words indicate that the leadership understands that now is not the time to play cat and mouse," says Shestopal. "It is possibe to deduce Kadyrov's motives, but the outcome is not in his favor."

However, Shestopal believes that currently such radical statements fit the social discussion really well. 

"Kadyrov's words go along the general trend that has been exploited by our propaganda for the last year and a half to two years," Shestopal suggests. 

Who is the enemy of the people?

Svanidze is at a loss for words when he hears the phrase "the enemy of the people" nowadays. 

"We cannot have the enemies of the people. The term was coined during the Great French Revolution to describe those that faced the guillotine. Then it was used after the Great October Revolution in 1917 and during the Great Terror as the excuse to execute hundreds of thousands of people," the expert says. 

Svanidze explains that Russia's constitution does not condone labeling people as friends or foes and only spells out the distinction between those who follow and break the law. The term "the enemy of the people" is extremist in and of itself. 

He further points out that such words sound strange coming from ethnic Chechens who suffered greatly under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's rule.

"Chechens were relocated to other regions based on allegations similar to being accused of being ‘the enemies of the people.' And now the sons of those that perished during the purges are adopting the vocabulary of their executioners," Svanidze concludes indignantly.