10 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The assassination of the Kremlin's hand-picked Chechen president deals a severe blow to claims by Moscow that the rebellious republic was approaching what it called "normalization."
Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov rose to power under the Kremlin's wing and was elected in a ballot widely criticized as fraudulent. But the government in Moscow presented his presidency as a legitimate first step toward a lasting peace in the war-torn region.
Kadyrov's death yesterday -- in a sophisticated bomb blast timed to coincide with Russian Victory Day celebrations in Grozny -- shatters this illusion.
Putin said Kadyrov died a hero's death.
It is still unclear who is responsible for the explosion, which killed at least four other people, including the head of Chechnya's State Council.
Chechnya's separatist leader, Aslan Maskhadov, today denied any involvement in the assassination, and strongly condemned such terror acts, saying "violence will never solve our problems."
Russian President Vladimir Putin -- who rose to power on promises to resolve the years-long conflict in Chechnya -- appeared shaken yesterday as he condemned the killing.
Standing next to Kadyrov's son, Ramzan, Putin said the Chechen president had died a hero's death.
"Akhmad Kadyrov passed away on 9 May, on the day of our national holiday, the day of victory. And he left victorious as well," Putin said.
The Russian president met with Chechen Prime Minister Sergei Abramov, who will act in Kadyrov's stead until new elections can be organized. Kadyrov was elected last October and had served less than eight months.
Abramov spoke today to mourners in Tsentoroi, Kadyrov's home village.
"The night before yesterday we talked about how we would build towns, how we would restore our economy together and live a peaceful life," Abramov said. "I can say one thing to you now -- he had high hopes for you."
Analysts say the assassination marks a major blow for the Kremlin's Chechnya policy. Kiril Koktysh, a Russian politics expert at Moscow's Institute of International Relations, said Putin's entire Chechnya policy was centered around Kadyrov's presidency.
"Kadyrov was the spearhead of the whole legal system created in Chechnya," Koktysh said. "It is likely that it will be rebuilt, but it is not clear who will stand at the head of it and through whom it will be done. Kadyrov was the strongest figure there."
Now, Koktysh said, the absence of a central political power may lead to intensified fighting in the republic. On one level, many Chechens saw Kadyrov as a political puppet acting out Moscow's bidding. But on another, Kadyrov was part of a powerful Chechen clan -- something Koktysh says will likely provoke local infighting and blood revenge.
Akhmed Muradov, who heads the Chechen Diaspora of Kazakhstan and is vice president of the World Chechen Congress, said that Kadyrov " was a very brave, decisive, strong Chechen. He really understood the issues of the Chechens. He was deceived [by Moscow]. It is pitiful. Now, his son has been put into it, a vendetta will begin according to traditional obligations of the son for the father, and escalation will take place. It is difficult to imagine the consequences of this explosion," Muradov said.
The 52-year-old leader was widely unpopular among Chechens, who said he terrorized local citizens using his private police force, comprising deeply loyal clan members and experienced former rebels.
The group is believed to inspire even greater fear among Chechens than federal forces currently serving in the republic as part of Russia's second war in the breakaway region in the past decade.
The force -- estimated to number up to 4,000 fighters -- is believed to be responsible for numerous human rights abuses, including kidnappings and torture. Kadyrov's son Ramzan commands the force and is said to operate a private prison on its behalf.
RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitskii has extensively covered Russia's conflict in Chechnya. He said Kadyrov was an effective ally in Moscow's attempts to portray the continued conflict in the republic as an internal struggle rather than a battle against federal forces.
He said the Kremlin spent several years grooming Kadyrov to serve as a president who could represent Moscow's interests in the republic and still wield sufficient power to organize crackdowns against his own countrymen.
Babitskii said Kadyrov's assassination will set his private security forces adrift -- and likely leave them demoralized, angry, and ready for revenge.
"I think that, of course, a vendetta will take place," Babitskii said. "I think that now, all of Kadyrov's forces, who already acted very cruelly -- much more cruelly than the federal forces -- they of course will start a hunt. In most cases this hunt will be motivated by revenge. It will aim to avenge the death of a political leader as well, the death of a relative, a man who belonged to the same clan, if you want."
Babitskii said the shaky political system now functioning in Chechnya had Kadyrov as its sole foundation. Without him, he said, the system is doomed to collapse.
Kadyrov, a former rebel leader who later repented and took sides with the Kremlin, was elected last October as part of the Kremlin's plan to bring order to Chechnya.
Some view him as a traitor and a man who was only concerned with his personal interests. Others insist he was a Chechen patriot who sought to stop the war in the republic.
Kadyrov had a colorful biography. He interrupted his religious studies in Oman in 1991 to join the rebellion in Chechnya. In 1994-95, in the heat of Moscow's first war in the republic, he fought against Russian forces in rebel units led by the first Chechen president, Dzhokhar Dudaev, who appointed him a supreme mufti.
Just a few years later, however, Kadyrov accused rebel leaders of fostering militant Islam and switched allegiances, joining the side of newly elected Russian President Putin.
Putin made pacifying Chechnya a cornerstone of his political agenda, and launched a second war in Chechnya in 1999. From then on, Kadyrov became a target of intense hatred by Chechen rebels, and survived numerous assassination attempts.
Kadyrov was elected virtually unchallenged last October with an aim to build an administration capable of establishing full Russian control. Many Chechens boycotted the elections, which were criticized by many international organizations as undemocratic.