Meeting on March 25 in the Kremlin with Ramzan Kadyrov, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he had signed a decree appointing the current Chechen leader as acting republic head when his second term expires on April 5.
Kadyrov will hold this temporary position until a vote is held across Chechnya to elect a republic head in September.
At the same time, in a clear allusion to highly publicized incidents over the past year involving Chechen security personnel and attacks on Russian human rights activists, Putin unambiguously warned Kadyrov of the need for "closer coordination" with the federal authorities, especially with regard to security.
That is in all likelihood an allusion to an episode in April 2015, when Kadyrov issued orders to the security forces loyal to him to "shoot to kill" in the event that Interior Ministry units from elsewhere in the Russian Federation seek to apprehend suspected criminals on Chechen territory without having obtained permission from the authorities in Grozny to do so.
Putin also told Kadyrov that "as the future leader of the republic, you should do everything to ensure full compliance with Russian laws in all spheres of life -- I want to stress this, in all spheres of life."
It is tempting to construe that injunction as an expression of Putin's displeasure at a vicious attack earlier this month on Russian human rights activists and two foreign journalists on the Chechen-Ingush border. The perpetrators drove cars with Chechen license plates.
In December 2014, Putin had issued a comparable, if less strongly-worded warning to Kadyrov not to violate the law in connection with republic head's orders to expel from Chechnya the families of insurgents responsible for attacks on Grozny earlier that month and for the destruction of their homes.
At the March 25 meeting, Putin also enumerated the positive aspects of Kadyrov's track record as Chechen leader: the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed during the wars of 1994-1996 and 1999-2000; drastically reducing unemployment (on paper, if not in actual fact); and restoring stability and security (although this is widely believed to have been done by intimidating or killing anyone rash enough to criticize Kadyrov or question the legality of his methods).
In the context of the rebuilding of Chechnya's war-shattered economy, Putin quipped that "I didn't expect someone of your background to develop suddenly into a competent economic manager." Strictly speaking, however, the economic upswing since Putin first named Kadyrov Chechen president in March 2007 was primarily the work of trusted subordinates -- in the first instance Grozny Mayor Muslim Khuchiyev, who pulled out all the stops to ensure Kadyrov's orders were carried out within the designated timeframe, mainly because the futures of the Chechen leader's underlings and of their families depended on it.
Putin's appointment of Kadyrov as acting republic head lays to rest widespread speculation in recent months that the Russian leadership, or more precisely a specific interest group within it, had become so alarmed at the exponential increase in Kadyrov's power and influence that they were considering naming him to another position. The independent Daghestan-based daily "Chernovik" mentioned the posts of federal envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District (currently held by Sergei Melikov,who would then succeed Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatiov) or that of deputy Russian presidential administration head with responsibility for nationality relations. The latter position is currently occupied by Abdulatipov's predecessor as Republic of Daghestan head, Magomedsalam Magomedov.
That speculation about Kadyrov's political future has been fueled, on the one hand, by Kremlin officials' disinclination to clarify his future role, even though it is normal practice for a republic head to be appointed "acting" only very shortly before his term is due to expire, as was the case recently with Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic head Rashid Temrezov.
On the other hand, Kadyrov himself contributed to the uncertainty by declaring in late February that he did not wish to serve a third term. In response to that statement, Kadyrov's closest aides orchestrated a large-scale PR campaign under the hashtag #РамзанНеУходи (Ramzan, Don't Leave!).
A mass demonstration of popular support for Kadyrov scheduled for March 6, which budget sector workers had been ordered to attend, was called off, however, and Chechen government officials denied that it had ever been planned.
But a rally by up to 1 million people in Grozny on March 23, purportedly to mark the 13th anniversary of the adoption in a referendum of a new Chechen Republic constitution, was in effect organized in such a way as to give the impression that the republic's entire population sees Kadyrov as the sole guarantor of its security and well-being.
Putin expressed confidence that the Chechen people will "demonstrate their appreciation" of what Kadyrov has accomplished, presumably by reelecting him.But Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the Petersburg Politics Fund, has suggested that Kadyrov's reelection is still not necessarily a foregone conclusion, and that, in the five months before the September 18 ballot, the Kremlin may continue looking for an alternative candidate.
Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, who heads the International Crisis Group's North Caucasus project, believes that the Russian leadership has concluded that the potential risks of trying to replace Kadyrov as republic head are greater than that of permitting the continuation of his brutal, corrupt , and authoritarian regime. She further makes the point that, not only does the Kremlin lack complete control over Kadyrov -- which has been the consensus among Caucasus watchers for some time -- it is not even seeking to impose such control, even though it is capable of doing so.
At the same time, Sokiryanskaya observes that power in Chechnya rests with the Russian forces deployed there, not with Kadyrov's own private army, the strength of which Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin recently estimated at approximately 12,000 men. Sokiryanskaya predicts that, "if [the federal troops] were withdrawn from Chechnya now, the Kadyrov regime would not survive a week," given that "a significant number" of Kadyrov's security forces would withdraw their support for him. Whether and in response to what possible blatant disregard by Kadyrov of Putin's warnings the Russian leadership might resort to that worst-case scenario can only be guessed at.