Kadyrov In Strong Position To Become Chechen President
Under the Chechen Constitution, the duties of republic head devolve onto Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, whom many regard as Alkhanov's obvious successor.
Putin subsequently named Alkhanov Russian deputy justice minister.
Alkhanov's resignation, late on February 15, effectively ends the two-year rivalry between him and Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of Alkhanov's predecessor Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, who was killed in a terrorist bombing in May 2004.
Article 76 of Chechnya's constitution stipulates that if the republic head dies, steps down, or is otherwise incapacitated, his duties devolve automatically onto the prime minister -- in this case, Kadyrov. It is not yet clear, however, whom Putin will propose to succeed Alkhanov as Chechen administration head: Kadyrov, or someone else.
Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak is scheduled to hold consultations in Grozny on February 16, on the basis of which he will propose at least two possible candidates to President Putin. Putin will then select one, whose nomination must be formally endorsed by the Chechen parliament.
Primed For President
Given the younger Kadyrov's reputation as Chechnya's unofficial strongman, and the deference with which Putin treated him at the time of his father's death, analysts predicted even at the time of Alkhanov's election in August 2004 that he was intended as only a temporary figure. Analysts said he would be shunted aside in October 2006 when Kadyrov turned 30, the minimum age for the position of republic head.
Two months after Alkhanov's election, Kadyrov was promoted from deputy prime minister to first deputy prime minister, and in February 2006, he succeeded an ethnic Russian, Sergei Abramov, as premier. In December 2004, President Putin bestowed on Kadyrov the prestigious Hero of Russia award, to the outrage and consternation of human rights activists familiar with the record of abductions, torture, and summary killings allegedly perpetrated by police and other semi-official security bodies subordinate to Kadyrov. Some survivors have implicated Kadyrov himself.
Yet the undisputed progress achieved over the past two years in rebuilding at least parts of Grozny and Kadyrov's home town of Gudermes appear to have reinforced Putin's perception of Kadyrov as an energetic and capable young man who gets things done, rather than as an unstable psychopath with a private army numbering thousands of men at his disposal.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to soften his reputation as the most feared and hated man in Chechnya, Kadyrov set about 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 in public, including covering their heads.
In private, however, Kadyrov has different ideas. Clandestine video footage circulated last year showing him groping a dancing girl while his minions mistreated a detainee whose screams are clearly audible above Kadyrov's maniacal laughter.
At the same time, he launched a charm offensive, tirelessly visiting schools, building sites, and hospitals -- and ensuring that the local media give extensive coverage to such activities.
As indicated above, analysts both in Russia and abroad have long taken it for granted that, sooner or later, Kadyrov would become republic head, notwithstanding Kadyrov's own repeated protests that he has no such ambitions. Those predictions intensified in the run-up to Kadyrov's 30th birthday last October, which was marked in Chechnya with much pomp and circumstance, but then abated when Putin did not move immediately to promote his protege.
In recent weeks, however, the power struggle between Kadyrov and Alkhanov has intensified. Government officials loyal to Kadyrov are believed to have restricted Alkhanov's access to local media and to have confiscated and destroyed the entire print run of the sole Chechen paper that planned to mark Alkhanov's 50th birthday in late January.
If Kozak's disclaimer is to be taken at face value, then it seems possible that Alkhanov may inadvertently have precipitated his own ouster by hitting back at Kadyrov. At a February 12 meeting with representatives of federal power agencies, Alkhanov warned that "totalitarian methods of governing contradict...the spiritual mentality" of the Chechen people, and in a veiled but unmistakable allusion to Kadyrov, he went on to criticize the "cult of personality and idealization of a single person," which he predicted "will not bring any benefit to our republic and society."
Alkhanov's close ally, Economic and Social Security Council Secretary German Vok, was even more outspoken, arguing that Kadyrov should have demonstrated greater respect for Alkhanov and resigned before publicly criticizing him. Putin's aides may have advised him to remove Alkhanov, rather than risk a repeat of the incident in Moscow last fall in which Kadyrov dispatched a hit squad to gun down on the street his renegade former subordinate Movladi Baysarov.
While Kadyrov's name will doubtless figure on the shortlist of potential candidates to succeed Alkhanov that Kozak presents to Putin, it is not a foregone conclusion that he will be the final selection. Kadyrov himself last month identified as the optimum candidate Social Development and Labor Minister Magomed Vakhayev, who is 57, a trained lawyer, and who worked for years as a functionary in the Soviet Ministry of External Trade. The appointment of Vakhayev as a figurehead would permit Kadyrov to continue to wield supreme power and to promote, through Vakahyev and the parliament, his own political and economic agenda.
Some points of that agenda may already have triggered alarm bells in Moscow. Kadyrov's close associate Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, speaker of the lower chamber of the Chechen parliament, has proposed recombining Chechnya and Ingushetia to form a single republic.
Kadyrov for his part has called for redrawing the border between Chechnya and Daghestan to give back to Chechnya districts that were part of the then Checheno-Ingush ASSR before that republic was abolished in the wake of the 1944 deportation of Chechens and Ingush by then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Those proposals suggest that Kadyrov already considers Chechnya too small and insignificant a fiefdom. Abdurakhmanov has also argued on several occasions that Chechnya should be granted the status of a free economic zone, the right to exploit and dispose of its subsoil resources (meaning in the first instance oil), and exemption from all federal taxes -- in addition to the huge subsidies it already receives from the federal budget.
There is, moreover, a powerful if shadowy anti-Kadyrov faction within the federal power ministries. It could possibly include those federal officials with whom Alkhanov met in Grozny on February 12 in his abortive last-ditch attempt to focus attention on the dangers of vesting all Moscow's Chechen hopes in one man.
It was presumably those power ministries who were behind the humiliating incident in August 2006 when Kadyrov's press service publicly announced the imminent surrender of Chechen President and resistance leader Doku Umarov, only to retract those statements hours later on discovering that the man who surrendered was not Doku Umarov but his brother.
Finally, logic would suggest that if, as both Putin and then Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov assured the international security conference in Munich last weekend, Chechnya has been "normalized" and the "problems" it posed have been successfully solved, there is no longer any need for a strongman as republic head. It isn't clear whether Putin will be guided in his choice by logic or by his apparent unshakeable confidence in Kadyrov.
Has A New Chance Emerged For Karabakh Peace?
The U.S., French, and Russian mediators acting under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group hope that their prolonged efforts will at last yield fruit in the second half of 2007. They regard the months following the May 12 parliamentary elections in Armenia as another unique "window of opportunity" to end the 19-year-old conflict.
The Minsk Group's U.S. co-chair, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, sounded optimistic about the prospects for a Karabakh peace when he spoke to RFE/RL's Armenian Service on February 7. The conflicting parties, Bryza said, agree on most of the basic principles of the settlement plan proposed by the co-chairs. Those basic principles amount to holding a referendum on self-determination in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic years after the liberation of at least six of the seven Azerbaijani districts surrounding the disputed enclave that are currently occupied by Armenian forces. "They don't agree 100 percent on the basic principles, but they are close, very close," Bryza said, adding that Armenia and Azerbaijan disagree only on a number of unspecified "technical issues."
Bryza's comments add context to the cautiously upbeat statement issued by the three co-chairs on January 29 after their latest tour of the conflict zone. "The co-chairs urge all parties to sustain this momentum in the negotiations and to prepare their publics for the necessary compromises," that statement said, indicating their satisfaction with the results of their talks in Baku, Yerevan, and Stepanakert.
International hopes for a Karabakh peace accord were similarly high when Presidents Robert Kocharian of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan met near Paris one year ago. But those two-day negotiations and a follow-up Armenian-Azerbaijani summit in Bucharest in June 2006 did not produce an agreement, however.
Following the June summit, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said the two presidents failed during both rounds of talks to overcome one key sticking point that he declined to identify. But statements by Aliyev after another face-to-face meeting with Kocharian (in Minsk last November) gave ground for new optimism. Aliyev told Azerbaijan National Television on November 29 that since the so-called "Prague process" talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers on approaches to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict began in 2004, the negotiating process has gone through several stages, and "we are approaching the final stage."
Aliyev said the Minsk talks "were held in a constructive way," and that "we managed to find a solution to a number of problems we could not agree on before." He added, however, that "divergences remain on crucial points," and that further progress "depends on us ourselves," presumably meaning the conflict sides, as opposed to the Minsk Group.
Window Of Opportunity
Bryza implied on February 7 that the mediators expect the two presidents to take the last decisive step to peace during the period between the Armenian parliamentary elections on May 12 and the start of campaigning for the presidential ballots due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan next year. Kocharian has publicly pledged not to cut an unpopular peace deal before the May ballot.
For observers accustomed to successive setbacks in the Karabakh peace process, these encouraging signs may appear too good to be true, especially considering the diametrically opposed positions taken by Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in public. Aliyev in particular continues to insist that Baku will never recognize Karabakh's 1988 unilateral declaration of secession from the then Azerbaijan SSR, and can only grant the Armenian-controlled territory "the highest degree of autonomy." The Minsk Group plan would clearly enable the NKR's overwhelmingly Armenian population to legitimize that secession in the proposed referendum.
The date and practical modalities of such a vote are believed to be one of the most intractable remaining sticking points, with the Armenian side saying that it should be held as early as possible, and the Azerbaijanis reportedly demanding a 15- to 20-year delay. Armenian sources privy to the peace talks say the final version of the putative peace accord may not set any date for the referendum, and instead keep Karabakh under Armenian control for an indefinite interim period. Azerbaijan would presumably be able not to formally relinquish its claim to Karabakh in the foreseeable future.
Those same Armenian sources also say a peace settlement was also prevented in 2006 by another issue: the time frame for Armenian withdrawal from Kelbajar, one of the two Azerbaijani districts sandwiched between Karabakh and Armenia proper. At least until now, Armenia has said it will only relinquish control of Kelbajar after the holding of the referendum, a condition that Azerbaijani officials have publicly rejected.
The Trend news agency quoted Azerbaijan's Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov as saying on February 12 the parties are also divided on the return of Azerbaijani refugees to Karabakh and the status of the strategic Lachin corridor linking the enclave to Armenia. Yerevan and Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leadership insist that Lachin remain under full Armenian control. According to Azimov, during talks on January 23 in Moscow with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov, Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian rejected a proposal to use the Lachin corridor jointly with Azerbaijan. But while Azimov (playing bad cop to his boss's good cop?) accused Oskanian of adopting an "extremely tough" position on a number of points, Mammadyarov said on February 12 simply that he "expected more" from the Moscow talks. And while Azimov declared there is no point in continuing talks unless the Armenian side softens its stance, Mammadyarov held out the possibility that in the event of further progress, it will be possible to discuss a further meeting between the two presidents, day.az reported.
Whether or not the governments in Baku and Yerevan are really committed to mutual compromise is another key unanswered question. Aliyev, for example, has repeatedly predicted that Armenia will be increasingly unable to compete with his oil-rich country, which is beginning to reap the benefits of its vast hydrocarbon reserves. Kocharian and his political allies, for their part, believe that the Karabakh status quo does not preclude Armenia's development, pointing to its double-digit economic growth registered in recent years.
Still, the two leaders have at least one strong incentive to forge ahead with a compromise settlement this year. The proposed peace deal envisages a gradual resolution of the Karabakh dispute that would require a policy continuity in Baku and Yerevan, suggesting that the West would prefer to avoid regime change in either country. Aliyev will be up for reelection in late 2008, while observers believe Kocharian plans to hand over power in 2008 to his likely successor, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and remain in government in another capacity.