A violent daylight assault on Chechnya's parliament has not only left at least seven people dead. It has shattered the Kremlin narrative that peace and order are being restored to the tiny war-torn republic under the efficient leadership of pro-Moscow strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.
Russian news agencies said that between three and six armed militants infiltrated the parliament in Grozny on Tuesday morning by mixing their car among those of lawmakers arriving for work. One of the assailants blew himself up outside the building and the others headed inside, where they killed at least two Chechen security officers and a parliamentary aide. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the assault.
The official Russian RIA-Novosti news agency reported that some of the attackers made their way as far as the parliament's fourth floor before being "eliminated" by security officers. The assault occurred amid an official visit by Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, who addressed the legislature shortly afterward.
"We will not allow anyone to come to us with a sword," Mr. Nurgaliyev told shaken Chechen lawmakers. "They should know that they will die by the sword."
Just two months ago a suicide squad struck Mr. Kadyrov's home village of Tsentroi, killing 10 people. The attacks are a grim reminder to Kadyrov that his frequently repeated claims that Chechnya's Islamist and separatist insurgencies are premature.
"This shows the resistance continues, and is growing," says Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, who has written a book about Kadyrov. "Kadyrov insists that he controls the situation, that he has restored stability and security, and these events make those claims sound ridiculous."
From nationalism to jihad
For the Kremlin, which put all its stakes on Kadyrov and appears to have no Plan B for bringing peace to Chechnya, the dilemma is intense. Russia has fought two brutal wars in the past two decades to quell Chechen secessionists at an estimated cost of 200,000 lives.
Though Russian security forces have been largely successful in destroying the old generation of Chechen separatist fighters, their ranks have been replenished by a new breed of youthful rebels who are no longer motivated by Chechen nationalism but by a pan-Islamist vision. The insurgency has spilled beyond Chechnya's borders to engulf several neighboring, mainly Muslim, republics.
But Kadyrov, installed after insurgents murdered his father in a spectacular 2004 stadium bombing, has managed to "chechenize" the conflict. He has enjoyed some success in rebuilding Chechnya's war-ravaged cities – at Moscow's expense – and pacifying the population through a combination of police terror and selective amnesties for former rebels. But experts say his ambitions have grown, and he may have become more of a liability than an asset to his Kremlin sponsors.
"Last year Kadyrov claimed that Chechnya was the best example for all the republics of the region," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "He has taken to describing himself as the 'young father of his nation', and bragging to the Kremlin that he controls 'every square inch' of Chechnya. [Former president and current prime minister Vladimir] Putin, who was Kadyrov's main sponsor, is growing very weary of him."
There are also signs that the export of terrorism from the turbulent north Caucasus to Russia's heartland, which killed over 1,000 Russians in the past decade, could resume. Last March twin suicide bombers struck Moscow's crowded metro system, leaving almost 40 people dead, and bombers killed six this past May in a theater attack in the Russian region of Stavropol.
Details of life under Kadyrov's regime are sketchy, since numerous journalists and human rights monitors who have attempted to work in Chechnya have been murdered – underscoring the threat to those who ask too many questions. Oleg Orlov, chairman of Memorial, Russia's largest human rights organization, describes Chechnya as a "totalitarian black hole" where even the basic rights enjoyed by Russians in other regions are lacking.
"The methods used to 'manage' the Chechnya situation are unacceptable for many people," Mr. Orlov says. "The Chechen population [under Kadyrov] has no legal channels to express their discontent. There is no free press, no free elections, and even to discuss politics is hazardous to life. It's a totalitarian regime, in which people have to talk, act, and even dress as the authorities dictate. The only possible way to express discontent is to join the underground opposition and this, of course, feeds terrorism."
But despite growing evidence that Kadyrov's main mission – to stabilize Chechnya – has been a failure, experts say it's unlikely that the Kremlin will fire him.
"Even if Russian authorities wanted to make a change, there is no alternative any more," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "There's no one left in Chechnya but Kadyrov's group. The Kremlin created him, depended on him, and now they're his hostage."