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Chechnya: Premier Seeks To Transform His Image

  • Liz Fuller --> Ramzan Kadyrov at a rock concert in 2005 (ITAR-TASS) When Ramzan Kadyrov was named in early March to the post of Chechen prime minister, he publicly vowed to relinquish that post if he failed to bring about a radical improvement in living conditions within three months. With that deadline now imminent, the Chechen Ministry for Nationality Policy, Press, and Information has reportedly commissioned a public-opinion poll. All conceivable responses to the seven questions posed confirm that life in Chechnya has improved since Kadyrov assumed full control of the government.

Kadyrov has indeed set about transforming the war-scarred face of the republic and, just as crucially, winning the hearts and minds of a generation that can barely remember a time when Chechnya was not at war. The "International Herald Tribune" on May 4 carried on its front page pictures of reconstruction in Grozny, commenting that the extent of the rebuilding would have been "unthinkable" just a year ago. Highways are being resurfaced, the electricity grid repaired, and new cafes and shops have opened. And the rebuilding is not confined to the capital: it extends to the towns of Argun and Gudermes.


Those visible signs of urban renewal have reportedly had a major psychological impact and earned Kadyrov the grudging respect of at least some of Grozny's residents. In a May 3 interview, Tatyana Lokshina, a Russian human rights activist who recently visited Grozny, told "Caucasus Times" that this constitutes a major shift in public attitudes and perception, given that one year ago "no one had a good word to say about" Kadyrov.

The reconstructed headquarters of Grozneftegaz in Grozny (TASS)

The Chechen government's public opinion poll seeks to quantify that public approval: the questions include "To whom does Chechnya owe the restoration now under way: to the federal center, the republic head, or the prime minister?" according to "Kommersant." Chechen Republic head Alu Alkhanov has publicly slammed that initiative, adding that Kadyrov has denied any knowledge of who initiated it, RIA Novosti reported on May 18.

Moreover, Kadyrov's leadership style is perceived as almost as important as what he has accomplished, insofar as he is coming to embody the sort of tough leader whom Chechens respect: a man who gives orders, and whose orders are promptly carried out. At the same time, as Lokshina notes, Kadyrov is still feared so intensively that virtually no one is prepared to utter a word of criticism of him or the several thousand armed men under his command.

Kadyrov's orders are not confined to rebuilding. He is also establishing a kind of moral discipline that is in keeping with traditional Chechen values, imposing restrictions on the sale of alcohol, cracking down on drug addiction, banning gambling, and encouraging women to dress modestly, including covering their heads.

At the same time, as noted above, Kadyrov has launched a charm offensive, tirelessly visiting schools, building sites, and hospitals -- and ensuring that the local media give extensive coverage to such activities. And he reinforces that impression of personal concern for individuals by handing out material benefits -- including wads of dollar bills. Where Kadyrov's seemingly bottomless funds derive from is a matter for speculation: part from Moscow, part from the proceeds of stolen oil, and part from a system that requires all state-sector employees to surrender a given percentage of their salaries, and owners of businesses a cut of their profits, according to Lokshina.

Hidden Agenda?

There are, however, grounds for suspecting Kadyrov's ultimate objective is not simply to improve the lives of the republic's population. According to Lokshina, Kadyrov is working intensively on improving his personal image, which has been badly tarnished not only by persistent rumors of his personal involvement in torture but also by his inability to express himself articulately in Russian. Lokshina said that Kadyrov has engaged a team of experienced image-makers whose efforts are already bearing fruit, to the point that "today's Kadyrov is no longer a dilettante in the realm of political populism but a full-fledged professional."

Many observers infer from Kadyrov's activities and statements in recent months that he has every intention of succeeding Alkhanov as republic head, and that he is convinced that Moscow supports that scenario. Even before Alkhanov's election in September 2004 to succeed Kadyrov's father Akhmad-hadji, who was killed by a terrorist bomb two years ago, commentators suggested that Alkhanov was intended solely as an interim figure and that he would step down as soon as Ramzan Kadyrov reached the age of 30 -- the minimum age for election as republic head. Kadyrov will turn 30 on October 5.

The main newspaper editorial center in Grozny under reconstruction in March (TASS)

The Chechen parliament, whose members are overwhelmingly loyal to Kadyrov, recently passed two laws that pave the way for amending the republic's constitution to expedite the replacement of Alkhanov, "Vremya novostei" reported on May 12. That legislation outlines the procedure for the creation of a Constitutional Court and Constitutional Assembly that will amend the republic's existing constitution to remove the stipulation that the republic head is universally elected.

The rivalry and tensions between Alkhanov and Kadyrov erupted into violence last month when bodyguards for the two men reportedly exchanged shots after Alkhanov sought to exclude Kadyrov from a meeting in Grozny with visiting Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin. Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned the two men to Moscow on May 5 and warned Kadyrov not to seek to undermine Alkhanov, the daily "Kommersant" reported on May 6 without naming its sources.

Meanwhile, Alkhanov has reportedly also set about recruiting allies who could be counted on to support him in an anticipated showdown with Kadyrov. Those figures are said to include the commanders of the East and West battalions of the Russian Interior Ministry's 42nd division, Sulim Yamadaev and Said-Magomed Kakiev, and former Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantamirov, who as Chechen deputy prime minister had several spectacular public disagreements with Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. Yamadaev hates Kadyrov, whom he suspects of being responsible for the death of his brother, according to an analysis posted on on May 1. A "Wall Street Journal" commentary last year cited reports that Gantamirov was then based at the Russian North Caucasus military headquarters in Mozdok, and that he was being kept "in reserve" as a possible successor to Kadyrov.

Assuming those reports of a tentative anti-Ramzan alliance are true, it is inconceivable that Alkhanov would have set about forging it without Putin's approval. And if Putin has approved such an alliance, that suggests that at the least he has finally come to realize that Kadyrov poses a potential threat, even if he has not yet decided whether or how to set about removing that threat.

Crisis In Chechnya

RFE/RL's complete coverage of Russia's war-torn Republic of Chechnya.


An annotated timeline of the Chechnya conflict.