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Is The Clock Ticking For Ramzan Kadyrov?

Vladimir and Ramzan in 2007 -- is the Russian leader prepared to indulge the Chechen strongman's flamboyant self-promotion?
Vladimir and Ramzan in 2007 -- is the Russian leader prepared to indulge the Chechen strongman's flamboyant self-promotion?
The Russian government recently submitted to the State Duma a draft law that empowers the president and government to delegate to the regions responsibility for various spheres that have hitherto been the prerogative of the federal authorities. At the same time, the bill empowers the government to initiate the dismissal of federation-subject heads who fail to fulfill adequately those new duties. In that respect, it is a variation on the proposal made in 2005 by then-Southern Federal District head Dmitry Kozak.

Kozak's plan, which was never formalized, envisaged augmenting the powers of federation-subject heads, but at the same time restricting the potential for independent decision-making of the governors of regions where the budget is heavily dependent on subsidies from the federal center.

Commentator Maksim Shevchenko wrote last year that Moscow's approach to governing the North Caucasus has changed, and the era of giving local leaders carte blanche to do as they please, provided they maintained "order," has ended. Instead, Shevchenko wrote, the emphasis has shifted to economic development and strengthening the "power vertical."

The possibility of legally empowering the federal leadership to remove a federation-subject head for failing to discharge his duties to the required standards raises the question whether the new legislation is intended to facilitate the sidelining of leaders who either fail to adapt to those new demands, or have come to be regarded as a liability, or both.

Specifically, it raises questions about the long-term prospects of Ramzan Kadyrov, who has just completed the third year of his second term as Chechen Republic head. The 2012 law on reintroducing direct elections for federation-subject heads does not impose any limitation on the number of terms they may serve.

No Longer Untouchable?

For years, it has been accepted wisdom that notwithstanding Kadyrov's outrageous pronouncements and tasteless self-promotion, no attempt to rein him in would be undertaken prior to mid-2014 because he and the thousands of police and security personnel subordinate to him were regarded as essential to preventing a terrorist attack on the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi by Islamic militants acting at the behest of self-styled Caucasus Emirate head Doku Umarov.

That constraint no longer applies. Not only did the Games take place without any such disruption. Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Aleksandr Bortnikov announced last week that thanks to close cooperation with the security services of the United States, Austria, France, Germany, and Georgia, several groups that planned terrorist attacks on the Games were neutralized. Bortnikov did not mention any input by the Chechen power agencies.

Bortnikov also formally confirmed the death of Umarov late last year as a result of a covert operation. Again, he did not give any credit to Chechnya.

Kadyrov for his part declared that in the wake of Umarov's death, the insurgency in Chechnya, whose strength he estimated at between five and 12 men, is without a leader and "no longer poses a real threat." That statement is questionable in the light of the recent ambush in Achkhoi-Martan district in which an armored personnel carrier was blown up, killing four Russian servicemen and injuring seven more. Heavy artillery and combat helicopters were deployed against the perpetrators; one fighter was reported killed in the vicinity a week later.

Kadyrov further claimed that not a single young man from Chechnya had joined the ranks of the resistance in recent years. In early 2012, however, hundreds of new recruits were reported to have joined the insurgency ranks in Chechnya within the previous few months.

A further indication, Kadyrov continued, of the lack of support in Chechnya for the resistance is the appointment of an Avar, rather than a Chechen, as Umarov's successor. The Avar in question, Aliaskhab Kebekov, together with the commander of the Daghestan insurgency wing, had, however, urged that the veteran Chechen fighter Aslambek Vadalov be named to succeed Umarov.

Moscow-based analyst Aleksei Malashenko has made the point that Kadyrov is increasingly positioning himself as a national, rather than a regional political figure. Malashenko pointed specifically to Kadyrov's pronouncements on Crimea.

True, Kadyrov has managed to secure, whether by threats or blandishments, the public backing of a number of high-level federal officials. Visiting Grozny in June 2013, Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin was unstinting in his praise of postconflict reconstruction in Chechnya under Kadyrov's leadership. Stepashin described Chechnya as "an example to all Russian regions," and expressed confidence that if the planned industrial development program is adopted and implemented, within a few years Chechnya will no longer require subsidies from the federal budget. Just four years earlier, Stepashin had commented a propos of Kadyrov's declaration of his annual income and assets that "Ramzan Kadyrov owns the entire republic."

But to judge by the published account of Kadyrov's meeting on April 7 with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Putin regards Kadyrov no differently from any of his peers -- or at least seeks to create that impression.

During that meeting, Putin posed a series of routine questions about the level of unemployment, the birthrate, and public-sector wages very similar to those he put to Republic of Ingushetia President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov in February 2013. Putin was not quoted as having expressed appreciation of Kadyrov's offer to mobilize a peacekeeping force for deployment in Crimea.

It would nonetheless be unwise to read too much into Putin's public treatment of Kadyrov. Kadyrov's absence in December 2012 on the occasion of Putin's address to the Federation Council was construed by some observers as evidence that Kadyrov had committed a "fatal error" several months earlier by advancing territorial claims on Ingushetia, and in doing so incurred Putin's wrath. But predictions that he would be dismissed proved premature.

For the moment, the Kremlin still appears willing to indulge Kadyrov's flights of fantasy, such as the proposed special industrial zone comprising enterprises in Chechnya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Stavropol Krai, provided it is not required to fund them. Stepashin last year characterized Chechnya as one of the Russian regions where subsidies from the federal budget are used with the maximum effectiveness. Only if that perception changes fundamentally is Kadyrov's position likely to become vulnerable.

-- Liz Fuller

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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