Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Chechens Worried About Future Leader
Two silver cars, minus number-plates, zoom through the centre of Grozny, blaring their horns. Other vehicles pull in by the side of the road to let them go by.
A week after the Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated on May 9, the “Kadyrovtsy” – his paramilitary forces - are still in charge and brook no rivals on the streets of the Chechen capital. Locals know that the Kadyrovtsy “don’t like it” if they are overtaken. There have been incidents when drivers who got in the way of the Kadyrovtsy were badly beaten up.
The “Kadyrovtsy,” are now loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of the late leader and head of his security service, and it is both their future and his that are now the major preoccupation of Chechens.
“Surely Ramzan won’t become our president?” exclaimed Said Mutsalayev, a 54-year-old resident of Grozny. “If he does, it will be better just to leave the republic.”
Said says this with good reason. Last year his son was seized by the Kadyrovtsy – for no reason that Said can understand. His son was beaten and held hostage until his family paid a 15,000 US dollar ransom to have him released.
Following last week’s events, ordinary Chechens are fearful of a crackdown by Ramzan Kadyrov and the hundreds – possibly thousands – of armed men under his control. When his father was president, Ramzan headed his “security service,” an armed militia which was not subordinate to the local interior ministry.
Despite its name the security service did not so much ensure the safety of Akhmad Kadyrov as fight the rebel guerrillas of separatist president Aslan Maskhadov and militant leader Shamil Basayev. With some success, they also persuaded rebels to defect and join their own ranks.
A Chechen interior ministry official who asked not to be named told IWPR that while the security service does not officially exist, it consists of five different organisations, one of which, a special company for protecting top officials, is now guarding Chechnya’s acting president, Sergei Abramov. Some of them formally work in the interior ministry but are in reality loyal only to Kadyrov. The official said he did not know how many men the service has, “Only Ramzan Kadyrov knows the real number.” Estimates range from 1,000 to 6,000.
Monitors from the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial say that the Kadyrovtsy have carried out abductions and given protection to criminal businesses in Chechnya, including the trade in metals and oil.
For young Chechen men, the attractions of becoming part of this militia are obvious.
“I am planning to join the Kadyrovtsy as the pay is good, and they give you weapons, a car and documents which are so good that no checkpoint will stop you,” said Anzor, a 21-year-old resident of Grozny, who currently makes a living selling cassettes in the market.
To many, the power of these armed men is reminiscent of the groups of armed men who dominated Chechnya in its period of de facto independence in 1997-99 and enjoyed the same level of impunity. “We know of a story when they [Kadyrovtsy] threw an old woman out of her apartment and settled there themselves,” says Natalia Estemirova of Memorial.
Another Memorial activist, Usam Baisayev, says that the Kadyrovtsy cooperate with the Russian military – at least most of the time. “Their actions are coordinated with federal forces and these abductions are politically motivated,” he explained. “But sometimes one of the Kadyrovtsy begins to settle old scores. It’s easy to do that when you have a gun in your hands.”
On the day Akmad Kadyrov was assassinated, his son Ramzan was received in the Kremlin by President Vladimir Putin. Pictures of Putin and Ramzan, the latter in a blue tracksuit, were broadcast all over the world. The next day he was named first deputy prime minister of Chechnya, while retaining his post as head of the presidential guard.
The main question everyone is now asking is who will become Chechnya’s president when polls are held there on September 5, and whether Ramzan is being groomed for the job. Given the recent history of Chechnya, no one expects this to be a free and fair election, so the question is in fact “who does the Kremlin want to be president of Chechnya?”
Abramov, the ethnic Russian prime minister of Chechnya who is acting as its interim leader, was completely unprepared for his temporary elevation on May 9, and no one – almost certainly including Abramov himself – expects him to run for president.
The Kremlin’s problem is that there is no obvious successor. “Kadyrov was the only solution the Kremlin had, they had no back-up option,” Russian political analyst Boris Kagarlitsky told IWPR by telephone. “His role was to fight the separatists using his own methods. The Russian army could not defeat the rebel fighters, but Kadyrov could tempt them to surrender. After his death, that strategy has become unworkable.”
Approaches have already been made to Putin suggesting that Ramzan Kadyrov could be heir to his father. One came last week from Chechnya’s State Council, asking the Russian president “to take all measures to remove obstacles for the registration of Ramzan Kadyrov as a candidate for the post of head of the republic”. Across Chechnya an officially-backed campaign of petitions and rallies has been launched to support Ramzan’s candidacy.
The major obstacle is that at the age of 27, Ramzan is three years too young to run for president under the Chechen constitution adopted last year.
Alexander Veshnyakov, head of Russia’s central electoral commission, responded quickly by telling a Moscow press conference that it was “unacceptable” and “impossible” to change the constitution. He pointed out that only a properly elected president, not an acting one, can make changes to the document.
Kagarlitsky says that the Kremlin is in a state of confusion and that despite the collapse of the previous policy on Chechnya, President Putin is reluctant to install a “governor-general” in place of a political leader who has been at least nominally elected.
“It’s possible to appoint a governor-general but what will he do?” said Kagarlitsky. “Increase repression? But that would be the end for everything that Kadyrov has achieved. The former fighters will return to the hills. Leave everything as it is? In that case a Russian official, who doesn’t have Kadyrov’s experience or connections, won’t be able to cope. The only thing that could explain the appointment of a Russian governor would be preparations for negotiations with Maskhadov.”
Developing this idea, Kagarlitsky argued that, “A good Kremlin appointee could conduct tough but effective negotiations, preparing the ground for a phased settlement on the Northern Ireland model – preserving the integrity of the ‘big state’, but with supporters of independence taking part in ruling the territory. But the problem is that Kremlin is not ready for a solution like that. And so the vacuum remains.”
Kagarlitsky said the Kremlin had no obvious candidate either in Chechnya or in Moscow. He believes the intensive search for one will most likely end with Moscow supporting “the first obvious figure who turns up”.
Igor Bunin, of Moscow’s Centre for Political Technologies, suggested that Moscow might end up with a “collective Kadyrov” - Ramzan Kadyrov in charge of security and the current deputy prime minister Taus Jabrailov as the administration’s “civilian face”.
So far, Ramzan appears to have won a pledge from President Putin – given during the latter’s May 11 visit to Grozny – that his security service will not be touched. According to Artur Akhmadov, chief of staff for the Chechen presidential security service, “When we met Putin, he said ‘the presidential security service will receive everything it needs today. I promise my total support. The number of men will not only not be reduced, it will be increased. I need the security service not only in the Chechen Republic, but in the whole of the North Caucasus.’”
At the same time Chechen interior minister, Alu Alkhanov received a pledge that his own force would be expanded by 1,000 men.
Although all this appears to strengthen the hand of Ramzan Kadyrov, some argue that his position is not as secure as it seems.
Timur Muzayev, a well-known Chechen political analyst, says that the concept of a “Kadyrov clan” is a myth, and that the men under arms are merely serving whoever pays them a wage.
“In actual fact this is just a randomly assembled group, which held together thanks to one leader, Kadyrov. The idea of ‘Kadyrov’s armed formations’ is just as much a myth,” said Muzayev.
Timur Aliev is IWPR’s coordinator for Chechnya.
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