The groom was approaching 50, a boss in the feared Chechen police force. The bride was 17.
Many Russians, both before and after, expressed outrage over the nuptials, putting Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov – a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin – on the defensive. The wedding went ahead over the weekend, the bride deathly pale and her voice barely audible as she agreed to marry Nazhud Guchigov, who reportedly was taking her as his second wife as allowed by Islamic, but not Russian, law. Mr Kadyrov’s chief of staff played the best man, clutching the bride by the elbow to control her every step, and Mr Kadyrov himself danced a folk dance at the wedding reception.
The scandal comes amid a tug-of-war between Mr Kadyrov and Russian federal law enforcement, which escalated after the slaying of charismatic Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Mr Kadyrov’s defiance in shielding Chechen suspects has aggravated tensions between him and Russian security agencies. That creates a headache for Mr Putin, left with the task of moderating the conflict to avoid destabilising the region.
The tensions are unlikely to spark open hostilities or lead to Mr Kadyrov’s removal. But they reflect an apparent effort by the Kremlin to cut the 38-year-old Chechen leader down to size – even as Mr Putin continues to stand by him. Mr Kadyrov has enjoyed an exclusive relationship with Mr Putin, who saw him as the linchpin for peace in Chechnya after two devastating separatist wars that killed tens of thousands. In exchange for restoring stability, Mr Putin gave Mr Kadyrov, a former rebel, carte blanche to run the region in the North Caucasus as his personal fiefdom – and funded reconstruction.
Mr Putin’s patronage has allowed Mr Kadyrov to effectively shed federal controls. He has imposed some Islamic rules, overruling federal law, allowing men in Chechnya to take several wives and introducing a dress code for women. Mr Kadyrov’s shield started to crack after Mr Nemtsov was gunned down in February and federal investigators quickly tracked down and arrested five alleged perpetrators, all Chechen.
The latest blow to Mr Kadyrov came earlier this month, when an independent newspaper reported that the 46-year-old Mr Guchigov was forcing a 17-year-old into becoming his second wife by blocking her village so she couldn’t leave. Mr Kadyrov stood by the police chief, saying the girl and her family voluntarily agreed to the wedding. The wedding took place in Grozny on Saturday. The quiet resolution of the scandal signalled that Moscow had decided that Mr Kadyrov had been taught a lesson.
“I wouldn’t exclude Mr Kadyrov’s dismissal,” said Grigory Shvedov, editor-in-chief of the Caucasian Knot, an online news portal, arguing that the Chechen’s purported role as a guarantor of stability may be overestimated. But others believe Mr Putin still sees Mr Kadyrov as key to peace.
Alexei Malashenko, of Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow office, said Mr Kadyrov has reaffirmed his special status. “It makes no sense to replace him,” he said. “It will lead to infighting and instability in Chechnya.”