By Amie Ferris-Rotman
MOSCOW, Russia (Reuters) - Aspects of sharia law imposed in Muslim Chechnya in recent months are inching the republic closer to autonomy and posing a renewed threat to Kremlin control, analysts say.
The Kremlin relies on its hardline Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, to maintain order in the violent region in the North Caucasus, where separatists were driven from power a decade ago after two wars.
Analysts say Kadyrov's methods to tame the region include a crackdown on opponents and imposing his radical vision of Islam, which could push Chechnya again towards separatism.
Kadyrov, who fought Russian forces during the first Chechen separatist war in the early 1990s but switched to Moscow's side when the conflict reignited in 1999, says the claims are an attempt to blacken his name.
"Kadyrov has espoused sharia law. He has effectively achieved a level of Chechen independence that 15 years of rebellion and insurgency have failed to do," Matthew Clements, Eurasia analyst at IHS Jane's Information Group in London, told Reuters.
Earlier this month Chechnya's spiritual leader successfully ordered the shutting down of all eateries during the holy month of Ramadan. Separately, many women said they had been harassed by men for not wearing headscarves in what some of the assailants said were instructions from religious authorities.
The Ramadan orders followed words of praise from Kadyrov who told state TV he was grateful to attackers who targeted women with paintball pellets in June for not wearing headscarves.
Clements said that while Moscow has tolerated Kadyrov's enforced view of Islam in return for dampening militant activity, the balance could tip if he oversteps his authority.
The Kremlin is battling a spreading Islamist insurgency across the North Caucasus, where rebels angered by poverty and fired by the ideology of global jihad are fighting for a pan-Caucasus independent state governed by sharia law.
The region's proximity to Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is particularly alarming as rebels hide in the very same mountain range where the snow-based sports will be held.
SHARIA SHOULD NOT BE ENFORCED
Kadyrov, a devout Sufi Muslim, has said publicly he believes sharia law trumps Russian, but has also repeatedly said he is committed to Russian rule in Chechnya. The ambiguity has led some to say the region is morphing towards autonomy.
Kadyrov's spokesman Alvi Karimov denied sharia law had been imposed in Chechnya.
"Come down and see for yourself how everything we have works perfectly," he said by telephone.
With the exception of neighbouring Ingushetia's ruling in July to triple the pricetag on a bride, imposed sharia law has been limited to Chechnya so far in the North Caucasus.
The region's spiritual leaders have also said they are aiming to install the basis for sharia.
Vakha Khashkanov, the head of Chechnya's Centre for Spiritual-Moral Education, which Kadyrov set up, has told Reuters that anything allowed by sharia and the Koran, Islam's holiest book, should take priority over Russia's constitution.
Kadyrov has amassed a personal militia of at least 5,000 who at times act like religious police some Muslim countries have.
Rights groups say the police enforce Kadyrov's view of Islam in Chechnya, where alcohol sales are highly restricted, women must wear headscarves in public buildings and polygamy is encouraged by authorities.
Kadyrov has said they are simply maintaining order.
While 90 percent of Chechnya's 1.1 million people are Muslim, with most ordinary citizens identifying themselves as believers, the fact sharia is being forcefully applied could stir tension within the population.
Minkail Ezhiev, rights activist and founder of the Chechen Civil Society Forum, said such unease could pull society apart.
"Morality and ethics should be nurtured from within a family, not imposed on the street," he told Reuters in the Chechen capital Grozny.
Several years ago Kadyrov embarked on a Sufi revival, the mystical branch of Islam that emphasises a personal union with God. Chechens have strongly identified themselves with Sufism since they adopted Islam 200 years ago. Soviet authorities had forced it underground, as they had with almost all religion.
Kadyrov built Europe's largest mosque, which glistens in central Grozny atop the grounds where the Communist party had its headquarters before the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
Some say Kadyrov must now please Chechnya's Sufi spiritual authorities in order to maintain his grip on power.
"The Sufi orders are mixed with tribal structures inside Chechnya that have been there for a long time. Kadyrov must rely on them and that is why he is producing so many religious (rules)," said Murad Batal al-Shishani, an independent analyst focusing on Islam and terrorism in London.