Resentment over the lavish subsidies paid to Chechnya and other regions in the mostly Muslim North Caucasus to secure loyalty after the war has spawned a movement dedicated to cutting the region off financially.
In protest last week, hundreds of people, mostly young men, marched across the Moscow River from Mr. Putin’s office, shouting, “Stop feeding the Caucasus!”
Their anger was forged not only by continued separatist violence in the North Caucasus — and related terrorist attacks in Moscow — but also by the regional elites’ brazen displays of wealth. For his 35th birthday last week, Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, put on a glittering celebration complete with a troupe of foreign acrobats and a performance by the British celebrity violinist Vanessa-Mae.
Some critics have even called for the North Caucasus to be severed from Russia completely, a surprising turnaround given the amount of Russian blood and treasure spent trying to keep it. An opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center, a Moscow polling agency, in May found that 51 percent of the population would not care if the country’s borders were redrawn to exclude Chechnya, higher than at any time during Mr. Putin’s leadership.
The protest movement, though still nascent, is potent enough that Mr. Putin has been forced to publicly defend his policies in the region. He has achieved relative stability in Chechnya in recent years by investing in Mr. Kadyrov, a former rebel, who has employed brutal tactics to bring the insurgency there to heel.
But violence has spread from Chechnya to other regions in the North Caucasus and beyond, and with elections for Parliament and the presidency months away, it will be increasingly hard to sell the Russian people on continuing these policies, some analysts say.
“This will become one of the main issues of the upcoming elections,” said Aleksei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader allied with the protest movement.
Speaking of the Kremlin’s predicament, he said: “On the one hand, they have promised the Caucasus elite huge amounts of money in exchange for votes and stability. On the other hand, they see that the Russian population is seriously unhappy about this.”
The debate has exposed a rift over the main premise behind nearly two decades of intermittent war in Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus. Russia’s leaders say the resource-rich region is fundamental to Russia’s territorial integrity, worth the billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives spent in holding on to it.
In recent years, Moscow has financed more than 90 percent of Chechnya’s budget, according to Russia’s Finance Ministry. In April, Mr. Kadyrov, the Chechen president, asked for almost $17 billion in additional federal money for infrastructure projects like rebuilding homes damaged or destroyed in the war. Russian officials justify the expenditures as necessary given the destruction and the security needs there. “Our infrastructure is degrading, the population is getting poorer, and along with many other bad things, we see huge amounts of tribute being paid to the Caucasus,” Konstantin Krylov, an organizer of recent anti-Caucasus protests, told reporters last month.
“For this amount of money we could buy ourselves an atoll somewhere in the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “The climate is better there, and it would be easier to turn into a vacation area. I would seriously consider trading Chechnya for Vanuatu.”