Just a few months ago, Ramzan Kadyrov's position as Chechen Republic head appeared unassailable. He was even named in December as a possible candidate for the post of federal official responsible for the entire North Caucasus. But since the start of the year, he has incurred veiled criticism from both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In addition, he has been the subject of damaging allegations from media outlets both in Russia and abroad.
In the three years since his appointment as president in the spring of 2007, Kadyrov has set about eliminating or sidelining anyone perceived as an inconvenience, let alone a potential threat to his authority. The victims include Grozny-based human rights activist Natalya Estemirova; several Chechens living in exile outside Russia; and obstreperous military commander Sulim Yamadayev and his brother Ruslan, a former State Duma deputy gunned down in broad daylight in Moscow in September 2008.
At the same time, Kadyrov has presided over reconstruction on a massive scale of infrastructure destroyed or damaged during the fighting of 1994-96 and 1999-2000. He seeks to promulgate a brand of ethno-territorial nationalism based largely
on popular Islam. And he has done little to discourage the personality cult that has grown up around him.
Last summer, Kadyrov's trusted henchman Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov held a series of meetings in Europe
with Akhmed Zakayev, head of the Chechen government in exile, and secured Zakayev's backing for Kadyrov's plan to promote political reconciliation. In mid -September, Medvedev publicly defended Kadyrov against criticism from Western experts, affirming that "he is trying to cope with his duties" and has accomplished a great deal in terms of economic development. Medvedev said
that while some of the criticism of Kadyrov is justified, it is mostly unwarranted: "He's not as bad as people make him out to be."
Whether Medvedev's disillusion with Kadyrov predated that statement in his defense, and if not, what subsequent action or statement by Kadyrov served as the final straw, can only be guessed at. Nor is it clear whether Medvedev's announcement in his November address to the Federation Council that he planned to appoint a senior official to oversee the North Caucasus (and who would be empowered to issue orders to the various republic heads) was conceived in the first instance as a way of circumscribing Kadyrov's influence and appetite for power.
Kadyrov has criticized the limits to the powers federation subject heads currently enjoy, and also the existence of the presidential envoys who serve as an intermediary between the federation subject heads and the president.
In an interview
one year ago with regnum.ru, he argued that "thanks to the system of 'divide and rule,' we ourselves create opposition to the leader of the region. Take my functions, for example. The president confirms me, but at the same time he appoints the heads of a whole string of Chechen Republic structures. We and they have the same status. The one thing that distinguishes me is that I am the guarantor of the constitution. But how can I ask them to work if I am not authorized to do so?"
In early January 2010, shortly before President Medvedev named former Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Khloponin to head a new North Caucasus Federal District of which the Chechen Republic is one of the seven components, Kadyrov told "Versiya"
that he considers the existence on an intermediary between the Russian president and the republic heads a demonstration of weakness: "If I am the president [of Chechnya] and people trust me, then I should report directly to the head of state."
Kadyrov added that he personally considered Russian presidential administration deputy head Vyacheslav Surkov and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Sobyanin the most qualified candidates for the post of federal official with overall responsibility for the Caucasus, but that for either of them that position would constitute a demotion. Kadyrov's subsequent reaction to the appointment of Khloponin was lukewarm. He told reporters
in Grozny that "if the head of state has placed his trust in Aleksandr Khloponin, that means [Khloponin] is capable of trying to resolve the region's problems." Khloponin will focus primarily on economic problems, Kadyrov added. He said he "would like to hope" that the creation of the new North Caucasus federal district will help raise living standards in the region, but fears it might deter potential investors.Other factors
that may have contributed to Medvedev's disenchantment with Kadyrov are the failure of the Chechen security forces subordinate to Kadyrov to defeat the Muslim insurgency, and Kadyrov's efforts to undermine his Ingushetian counterpart Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, whom Medvedev appointed in October 2008 and clearly backs to the hilt Ingushetia.
Despite the counterterror operation launched by Kadyrov in mid-May along the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia, Islamic militants have undertaken a whole string of high-profile suicide bombings and other attacks against targets in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Daghestan. Kadyrov nonetheless continues to affirm, as he has done for the past several years, that resistance fighters number no more than a few dozen at most, and that the last of them will be killed or captured in the near future.
That Medevedev is neither impressed nor convinced by such predictions is clear from his veiled reference at a high-level meeting in the wake of the January 6 suicide car-bomb attack on police In Makhachkala. On that occasion, Medvedev stressed
that "we must simply systematically destroy the bandits," rather than "close our eyes [to their existence] and spout figures" that may not reflect reality.
Prime Minister Putin has long been regarded as Kadyrov's patron and protector. Indeed, in his January interview with "Versiya," Kadyrov affirmed that "I am wholly Vladimir Putin's man. I shall never betray Putin; I shall never let him down. I swear by the Almighty: I would rather die 20 times." That avowal did not stop Putin from implicitly criticizing Kadyrov during a meeting in Pyatigorsk on January 22 with the heads of the seven regions that comprise the new North Caucasus federal district. Putin ordered
them and the police under their command to "do everything to ensure the normal work and functioning of human rights organizations whose activities do not contravene the constitution of the Russian Federation.
Khloponin's appointment coincided with a series of further incidents or allegations that reflect poorly on Kadyrov. The first was the appearance of a website, www.kadyrov2012.com, calling for his nomination as a candidate to succeed Medvedev when the latter's presidential term expires in 2012. Kadyrov condemned
that initiative as "ideological sabotage."
Then on January 26, Reuters carried an interview with Vakha Umarov, whose brother Doku is overall commander of the North Caucasus resistance. In that interview, Vakha Umarov claims that some senior members of the Chechen Republic secretly channel funds to the insurgency as insurance in the event that the latter succeeds in overthrowing Chechnya's secular government. Predictably, Kadyrov rejected that claim; but Medvedev subsequently again stressed
the need to monitor more scrupulously the use by North Caucasus leaders of federal funds.
In an apparent bid to deflect attention from the Reuters interview, Kadyrov went on the counteroffensive. In an interview
with Russia Today (RT) television station, he implicated exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky in the killing in July 2009 of Grozny-based human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. Estemirova's colleagues dismissed that claim as absurd.
Casting himself in the role of victim, Kadyrov also said that the killing in 2004 of his father, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, has still not been solved. But Oleg Orlov of Memorial human rights center, for which Estemirova worked, pointed out that Kadyrov earlier blamed his father's death on Chechen resistance commanders Aslan Maskhadov, Shamil Basayev, and Khairulla, and then, in 2009, on Sulim Yamadayev.
The veiled barbs directed by both Medvedev and Putin against Kadyrov could be construed as confirmation of Zakayev's comment two years ago to a Polish TV station that "I doubt very much that Medvedev wants the kind of Chechnya Putin has bequeathed to him -- a Chechnya with bands of fighters headed by Ramzan Kadyrov."
But even if Putin and Medvedev are now in agreement that Kadyrov has outlived his usefulness, sidelining him will not be easy, given the combination of Kadyrov's own peasant cunning; the knowledge he has acquired over the past five years of how the Russian political system can be manipulated; his ongoing rebranding of himself as a statesman who commands respect across the region; and the seemingly limitless financial resources and private army at his disposal.
To write him off as simply a semi-literate, thuggish, power-hungry psychopath is no longer a valid option.