In February 2016, just weeks before the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya was to hold an election for executive-branch head, incumbent leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced on state television that he had had enough.
“My time has passed,” he said. “There are lots of successors on our team. We have got very good specialists.”
Far from being the end of Kadyrov’s notorious run as the region’s strongman, the announcement was actually the start of an elaborate campaign to beg him to remain in power. It featured videos of weeping women and children and a statement from the region’s rights ombudsman to the effect that Kadyrov’s resignation would amount to a violation of the rights of every Chechen.
“Society sees no alternative to [Kadyrov], and there can be no talk of successors,” read a statement by a previously unknown group called the Civic Forum of the Chechen Republic.
The Kremlin-backed Kadyrov changed his mind -- if in fact he had intended to bow out -- and managed to whip up a last-minute formal campaign. According to the official result, he won a third term with 98 percent of the vote -- an outcome that government critics change was influenced by fraud and pressure on the populace to back him.
Now that term is coming to an end, and the political theater is returning. When Russia goes to the polls for national legislative elections on September 17-19, Chechens will vote for a republic head. And Kadyrov appears poised to claim another term despite his long record of human rights abuses, including what Human Rights Watch called “egregious cases of torture, public humiliation, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings.”
People tied to Kadyrov have been convicted of involvement or implicated in the killings of investigative journalist Anna Poltikovskaya, human rights activist Natalya Estimirova, former Russian Deputy Prime Minister and opposition political leader Boris Nemtsov, and others.
On June 23, Grozny hosted a Global Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya, a half-day forum that brought together 5,000 delegates from 23 countries, despite only being announced at the beginning of the week.
The congress boasted delegates from Turkey, France, Germany, Belgium, and other countries, although none of the Chechen diaspora organizations contacted by RFE/RL had advance notice of the congress or sent representatives.
“No one selected these delegates,” said Aslan Murtazaliyev, head of the Association of Chechens of Europe. “They are phantoms, and no one here knows them…. Our association has chapters in many countries in Europe and we would never send to a Kadyrov event.”
“Ramzan [Kadyrov] is the only candidate for the post of head of the Chechen Republic,” proclaimed State Duma Deputy Adam Delimkhanov at the event.
'In The Name Of All The Clans, All The Villages'
A man named Ali Bazhayev, who claimed to be the vice president of a group called the Alliance of Chechens in France, seconded the nomination “in the name of all Chechens in France.”
The 79-year-old Ruslan Khasbulatov, who was chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet until his standoff against President Boris Yeltsin in October 1993, also called on Chechens to vote for Kadyrov.
After the delegates finished lunch, they formed a procession headed by the republic’s chief mufti, Salakh Mezhiyev, and made their way to Kadyrov’s residence to urge him “in the name of all the clans, all the villages, and all the respected figures of Islam” to heed their call “not to abandon them on this path.”
Mezhiyev then personally handed Kadyrov a copy of the congress’s unanimous resolution. Analysts said the event was hastily organized to present the resolution just moments before Kadyrov’s video conference with President Vladimir Putin that afternoon. Putin praised Kadyrov’s handling of the regional economy and urged him to run for another term “to continue your work.”
“For my part, I wish you only success,” Putin said.
Human Rights Watch said that Putin’s assertion that Chechnya under Kadyrov is “one of the safest places” in Russia was “particularly cynical.” Just two days earlier, the head of Chechen state television threatened to kill Kadyrov’s critics.
“If someone needs to be killed, someone who deserves death, then we will kill,” Chingiz Akhmadov said in a video on Instagram, adding that any “enemy of Ramzan Kadyrov is an enemy of the Chechen people.”
Kadyrov, 44, virtually inherited the post of head of Chechnya after his father, Chechen President Akhmed Kadyrov, was assassinated in 2004. After a spell as prime minister, Kadyrov was appointed Chechen president by Putin in 2007. He was given a second term by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2011 and a unanimous vote by the region’s legislature. During that term, the post of Chechen “president” was abolished and Kadyrov has since been “head” of the Chechen republic.