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

Chechnya Without Kadyrov

How will Moscow govern the war-torn republic after the death of the man they put in charge?
By Timur Aliev

A day after the explosion that killed Chechnya’s pro-Moscow leader Akhmad Kadyrov, Grozny is unusually quiet. The occasion car speeds through the otherwise empty streets, shrouding the few pedestrians in clouds of dust.

Instead, the city is dominated by army and police patrols, and there are also men stationed every 200 metres along the main highway that cuts through Chechnya.

But these security measures all come too late to save Kadyrov, who was assassinated along with at least seven others at Victory Day celebrations in the city’s Dinamo Stadium on May 9.

“It looks as if everyone has gone to Tsentoroi for Kadyrov’s funeral,” said one passer-by in Grozny, referring to the ex-leader’s home village where he was to be buried.

Eyewitnesses said an explosion ripped through the wooden seats of the VIP stand in the stadium just as the official part of the ceremony, marking the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, was coming to an end and singers were starting to perform on the football pitch.

Several government officials had mounted the stand hoping to be part of a group photograph that was to be taken by Reuters photographer Adlan Hassanov. Kadyrov sat in the middle with Valery Baranov, the commander of Russian troops in the North Caucasus, on his right and Hussein Isayev, the head of Chechnya’s State Council, on his left.

The bomb blast threw everyone into a panic, and initially many people did not realise what had happened and simply tried to get away. Kadyrov was pulled from the wreckage of the stand, but died on the way to hospital. Isayev also died, as did photographer Hassanov and five more people, including an eight-year-old girl.

According to Chechnya’s interior ministry, a further 63 people were wounded, including Baranov, Grozny’s military garrison commander Grigory Fomenko, economics minister Abdula Magomadov, presidential press secretary Abdulbek Vakhayev and singer Tamara Dadasheva.

Questions are now being asked how the Chechen leader could have been assassinated at such a public gathering amidst tight security.

The bomb, packed into an artillery shell casing, weighed about one kilogram. It was concealed in the concrete and iron framework of the stand, and escaped the attention of mine-detectors who swept the stadium before the event.

Russia’s deputy prosecutor general Sergei Fridinsky, who is leading the investigation into the blast, told a press conference in Grozny that the suspects included some of Kadyrov’s personal bodyguards.

“It would have been very hard for just anyone to get into the stadium,” Fridinsky said. “That was impossible because of the security measures taken at the stadium on the day of the terrorist act.”

Fridinsky said that while the investigation was still continuing, at this point it appeared that the explosives could have been planted long before May 9. Security experts said they found two bombs, one of which failed to explode, and that both were armed with two trigger mechanisms, using a timer and wires. The attackers decided not to use a radio-controlled bomb – a preferred method in Chechnya – because they would have been aware that the authorities had installed equipment to jam incoming signals around the stadium.

Both the Russian authorities and local pro-Moscow Chechen authorities said they had no doubt that the assassination was the work of the pro-independence rebels under the command of either rebel president Aslan Maskhadov or radical leader Shamil Basayev.

Maskhadov denied any involvement. “In connection with the act of terror… where, as well as occupiers and national traitors hated by the Chechen people, peaceful citizens of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria suffered, I express sincere condolences from myself and my government to the families and relatives of our fellow countrymen who died innocently,” he said in a statement for his own Chechenpress web-site.

Maskhadov blamed the “intelligence services of the occupiers” for “liquidating a puppet government that had exhausted its resources”.

Interestingly, most of the ordinary Chechens in Grozny whom IWPR interviewed shared this theory – that the Russians rather than the rebels were behind the blast.

According to Chechnya’s electoral legislation, a new presidential election should take place within four months, in other words before September 9.

Until then, Kadyrov’s prime minister Sergei Abramov will be acting leader of the republic. But it is highly unlikely he plans to become Chechnya’s leader on a permanent basis.

Abramov is an ethnic Russian from Moscow who has been in post less than two months. He is a former finance minister of Chechnya.

At Kadyrov’s funeral on May 10, Abramov, wearing a Muslim skullcap like the other mourners, looked extremely depressed.

Abramov immediately announced that Kadyrov’s feared son Ramzan, 27, who is de facto leader of his father’s 4,000-strong armed militia, was to become his first deputy prime minister. Another protégé of Kadyrov’s, current nationalities minister Taus Jabrailov, was also made a deputy prime minister.

This attempt at political continuity cannot disguise the fact that Kadyrov’s death comes as a massive blow to Russian president Vladimir Putin. The president personally promoted Kadyrov, and spent four years building him up and giving him legitimacy, against the wishes of many other powerful voices in Russia including the army, who never trusted Putin’s choice.

Putin arranged for a referendum which gave Chechnya a new constitution, and then the election last October in which Kadyrov was elected president. Even though both polls were widely dismissed as heavily rigged, they gave Kadyrov a legal power-base from which to operate.

Kadyrov was a controversial choice. He was Chechnya’s mufti, or chief Muslim cleric, when it declared independence from Russia in the early Nineties, and he fought against the Russians in the first conflict of 1994-96. He went on to switch sides at the beginning of the second war in 1999, taking a stand against radical Islam and declaring his loyalty to Moscow.

He was invaluable to Moscow as someone who could mobilise his own paramilitary force against the rebels, and over the past few months he scored significant successes, persuading several former commanders loyal to Maskhadov to lay down their arms.

In return, Moscow turned a blind eye to his massive accumulation of local power, and the persistent allegations of torture and cruelty levelled against his security forces and their leader, his son Ramzan Kadyrov.

Putin’s whole strategy of “Chechenisation” – devolving government and security functions to a client administration – is in grave crisis after the killing of the figure around whom it was built.

“For all his faults, Kadyrov was a strong leader,” said political analyst and human rights activist Usam Baisayev. “If Kadyrov had got the post of president after the end of the first war in 1996 instead of Maskhadov, it’s possible he could have dealt with Basayev and the Wahhabis [Islamic militants].”

The biggest question facing Chechnya today is what the Kremlin will decide to do now.

Analyst Murad Nakhshoyev told IWPR that initial steps by Putin and Abramov suggested that the Kremlin was staying with Kadyrov’s team. “Until the presidential elections, Abramov will just be the ‘general at the wedding’ [a necessary figurehead], carrying out decisions that are made by Kadyrov’s team and agreed by the Kremlin.

“To continue its previous policy course, the Kremlin needs someone like Akhmad Kadyrov. Someone to whom [Maskhadov’s former defence minister Magomed] Khambiev believed it was not shameful to surrender, and to whom other field commanders can come and pay homage.”

However, said Nakhshoyev, neither of the two men currently being talked about for the job, businessman Malik Saidullayev and former policeman Aslanbek Aslakhanov – both former presidential hopefuls – have enjoyed the same kind of authority, based on force.

Other options facing the Kremlin would involve installing a figurehead leader while giving real power to an ethnic Russian “governor-general”, or tearing up last year’s constitution and giving Chechnya a parliamentary system. Both options would entail a major loss of face and substantial political risks for Putin.

In the meantime, most observers say that Kadyrov’s legacy is one of continuing violence in Chechnya.

“The fact that Chechens are shooting at and killing one another today is primarily thanks to Kadyrov,” said Baisayev.

Timur Aliev is IWPR’s editor for Chechnya.

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