Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechnya: Kadyrov's Path to Power

How Akhmad Kadyrov fought off his rivals and won the support of Vladimir Putin to become Moscow’s chosen leader in Chechnya
By Sanobar Shermatova

After the three strong Moscow-based candidates in the presidential election left the race, the outcome of Chechnya’s October 5 presidential election was a forgone conclusion. With no serious competitors in sight, Ahmad Kadyrov is bound to win hands down, almost certainly in the first round.


The Kremlin has firmly placed its bets on Kadyrov, the acting head of the Chechen government, but how did this come about and how were his opponents allowed to stay so long in the electoral contest?


Part of the answer is that personal endorsement of President Vladimir Putin has cleared the way for Kadyrov, while his Moscow-based rivals were extremely useful for the Russian government until quite recently.


One of Kadyrov’s three main rivals, State Duma deputy Aslambek Aslakhanov, withdrew after he was unexpectedly appointed the president’s aide in the Southern Federal District. Wealthy businessman Hussain Jabrailov backed out after visiting the Kremlin, where a high-ranking official reportedly asked him to leave the race. The candidacy of the third, millionaire, Malik Saidullayev, was revoked for alleged “errors” in his registration documents. The Russian supreme court has upheld the ban.


All three men had been in close consultation with the Kremlin and been given the green light to challenge Kadyrov. The two businessmen had spent vast sums on their campaigns. The only possible explanation for their departure is that the men in the presidential administration needed the cooperation of these “Moscow Chechens” for as long as possible to help them pursue their goals in Chechnya.


The republic now has a new constitution, imposed by Moscow, and a new status agreement is being worked out. Despite the continuing hatred and mistrust in Chechnya towards federal troops, many Chechens did turn out to vote in the March referendum in favour of the constitution.


For this the Kremlin in large part had to thank the Moscow-based Chechen diaspora, which invested heavily in the referendum and made sure the money reached the local population. Big sums of money intended for Chechnya frequently never reach the republic at all. Just as importantly, the lobbying work of the relatives and hired aides of the Moscow businessmen won the kind of support that Russian officials could never achieve in the republic.


In exchange for their work on the referendum, each of the Moscow Chechens hoped the Kremlin would back them in the presidential race. The three men all secured powerful backers in the Kremlin, the army or the security agencies.


Saidullaev’s campaign was the most aggressive. The Chechen supreme court revoked his registration soon after a group deputies from the 1997 pro-independence parliament announced they had voted to impeach rebel president Aslan Maskhadov.


(See IWPR CRS 196.) Few knew it was that Saidullaev who had persuaded the deputies to do this, believing - mistakenly - that in return the Kremlin would ease his path to the presidency.


The Kremlin is reportedly describing the period after the October 5 ballot in Chechnya as one of “transition” from war to peace. The next step is expected to be a treaty defining the division of power between the Chechen government and the federal centre. Then new parliamentary elections will be declared, followed by local ballots.


This will give Chechnya an entirely new set of structures – not an easy task given that the infrastructure of the republic is still almost entirely ruined and fighting is continuing. This help explains why the Kremlin wants to see someone like Kadyrov in power in Chechnya.


Kadyrov, 52, is the former mufti or senior religious cleric of Chechnya. In the war of 1994-6, he fought against the Russians, before breaking with his pro-independence comrades when he believed they made too many concessions to the Islamic radicals.


An authoritarian and battle-hardened fighter, Kadyrov will not stop at anything to achieve his goals, a quality he has already amply demonstrated. Kadyrov has now put down roots in Chechnya, building up his own power structure as he went. Should any other person come to power, this structure would disappear and the Kremlin would have to start again, something it cannot afford to let happen.


Perhaps most importantly, over the past three years Kadyrov has built up a personal relationship with the Russian president, who knows all his strengths and weaknesses very well. He has become “Putin’s man”.


When Kadyrov was appointed the Kremlin’s man in Chechnya in 2000 few expected him to be more than a transitional figure. In an interview with US journalists on September 20, Putin confessed that he had met Kadyrov “almost by accident” and had several difficult conversations with him before he appointed him.


“But he should be given credit - he turned out to be quite a consistent leader, although he doesn't have enough administrative experience, but where could he get it from?” Putin told the journalists. “I think that he has the most important quality - he truly wants to normalise the situation in Chechnya.”


Putin needs to have his own man in Grozny so that, by the 2004 presidential elections, he can show Russian voters a new Chechnya, a peaceful republic that is part of Russia. That will enable the president to say that he has made good the promises he made to Russian voters in his first electoral campaign in 2000.


However logical it may be, the Kremlin’s strategy is also fraught with danger. In his bid to establish control, Kadyrov has used thousands of armed supporters to wage what is virtually a war in Chechnya, creating many more enemies through his heavy-handed tactics. Many Chechens now want to exact “blood vengeance” on him.


The pro-independence rebels also still see Kadyrov as an enemy and a traitor and have tried to assassinate him several times. (This week Kadyrov’s prime minister Anatoly Popov was taken seriously ill after a suspected poisoning attack).


Finally, the removal of Kadyrov’s Moscow opponents has deprived a large number of voters of any semblance of choice and Chechnya of a good chance of investment. Unless the republic is stable, Chechen businessmen will not be willing to sink any money into it and new funds for investment and reconstruction will be suspended until Kadyrov’s “transitional” presidency ends. Only then, the Moscow Chechens, who have stopped at the roadside to give way to a heavy-duty bulldozer, may try to re-enter Chechnya’s political scene.


Sanobar Shermatova is a correspondent with Moscow News.


More IWPR's Global Voices