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The Unstoppable Rise Of Ramzan Kadyrov

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov speaks at a rally in Grozny on January 19 against the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by French weekly Charlie Hebdo.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov speaks at a rally in Grozny on January 19 against the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by French weekly Charlie Hebdo.

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, who celebrated his 38th birthday on October 5, may not yet be the second-most-powerful political figure in the Russian Federation. But that is not for want of self-promotion. He is already certainly the most colorful/flamboyant, arguably the most quoted (after his surrogate father and political patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin), and probably the most feared, not only across the North Caucasus but by those elsewhere in Russia who are already asking themselves what will happen if Putin leaves office, and who might succeed him.

Kadyrov's current pre-eminence is all the more impressive given that it was only in the early summer of 2004, following the death of his father Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov in a terrorist bombing that has never been solved, that he was first appointed to a government position -- as deputy prime minister of the Chechen Republic -- despite having only a rudimentary secondary education. Before that, he had gained notoriety as commander of his father's private security force, many of whose members were former resistance fighters who had availed themselves of successive amnesties. In that respect, Kadyrov's rise to power has been a classic example of Mao Tse-Tung's maxim that "all political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Even at that juncture, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteur for Chechnya, Andreas Gross, predicted that Ramzan Kadyrov would eventually succeed his father as Chechen president.

So how did he do it? It has become accepted wisdom that after Akhmed-hadji's death, Putin gave Ramzan carte blanche to resort to whatever means he considered expedient to stamp out the Chechen resistance and cow the long-suffering population into submission, in return for which the Russian government made available vast sums of money for postconflict reconstruction and conveniently turned a blind eye when Kadyrov diverted part of that cash for his own personal use. (The basic cost of maintaining his stable of mostly fifth-rate racehorses has been estimated at 24 million rubles [$367,471] per year, not including trainers' fees and the cost of transport to and from European race courses.)

Kadyrov was promoted to first deputy premier in October 2004 following the election of Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov as republican president. (In fact, Alkhanov was purely a figurehead, and Kadyrov's security forces did all they could to undermine him.) In that capacity, Kadyrov coordinated and presided over a mass-scale program to rebuild infrastructure destroyed during the wars of 1994-96 and 1999-2000, transforming Grozny from the wasteland of half- or totally destroyed buildings that shocked even Putin into a functioning city. That reconstruction effort was funded largely by aid from the federal government, but also by "voluntary" contributions extorted from the small minority of Chechens fortunate enough to have jobs, and from wealthy Chechen businessmen based in Moscow.

Massive Rally In Grozny Hails Islamic Prophet, Assails West

In February 2007, once Kadyrov had reached the minimum age of 30, Putin duly nominated him as Chechen Republic president.

Over the years, Kadyrov has played many roles: elder-brother figure and patron of sports clubs for teenagers; authoritarian micro-manager following up on residents' complaints about water supplies; President Putin's most loyal supporter; defender of "Chechen Islam," blogger, movie star, and playboy of the Russky mir routinely inviting such Western celebrities as violinist Vanessa Mae and movie stars Jean-Claude van Damme and Hilary Swank to Grozny to attend his 35th birthday celebration.

Kadyrov's initial success in rebuilding Grozny and other towns was largely the result of delegating responsibility to a handful of trusted cronies: Kadyrov is not so much Mr. Fix-it as Mr. Make-sure-YOU-fix-it-by-yesterday-or-God-help-you-and-your-wife-and-kids. That said, he is fiercely loyal to those of his subordinates who consistently deliver the goods -- providing they never question his authority.

Anyone who does, or who is perceived as a threat, is either constrained to flee Chechnya or ends up dead, like the brothers Ruslan and Sulim Yamadayev, the one a Hero of Russia and State Duma deputy, the other commander of the Vostok battalion subordinate to the Russian Defense Ministry. Both had been stalwart supporters and close associates of Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov. They were gunned down by hired killers in Moscow and Dubai in September 2008 and March 2009 respectively.

Kadyrov's authoritarian leadership style is reflected in this video clip, in which he contemptuously tells subordinates that it is he who gives orders in Chechnya and that the Kadyrov family alone is in charge. What is more, those orders extend far beyond economic issues to encompass education and, crucially, religion. Kadyrov clearly sees himself both as defender and definer of the faith, in his case a bizarre synthesis of traditional Sunni Islam and selected elements of Chechen Sufism that one insurgent scornfully dismissed as "a hodge-podge of Sufi fairy-tales and local adats [traditional precepts]."

There can be no doubt that Kadyrov has transformed the face of Chechnya, rebuilding infrastructure, mosques, schools, hospitals, and assiduously soliciting foreign investment in economic projects that he claims have reduced unemployment from 76.9 percent in May 2008 to 15.4 percent in December 2014.

He has had less success, however, in breaking the back of the insurgency. True, in 2005-06 there was a lull in military activity due primarily to the vacuum left by the deaths of Chechen Republic Ichkeria President Aslan Maskhadov and renegade field commander and tactical wizard Shamil Basayev. By April 2008, however, the insurgency was again strong enough to mobilize 400-500 fighters to occupy five villages west and southwest of Grozny, taking prisoner up to 15 of Kadyrov's men and killing 18.

Two years later, the insurgents launched two high-profile attacks in as many months, one on Kadyrov's home village of Khosi-Yurt and the second on the Chechen parliament building.

By that time, however, Kadyrov's influence had already spread to encompass most of the North Caucasus. He had launched regional initiatives, such as a North Caucasus Parliamentary Association in which his close associate, Chechen Parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, plays a key role. And it was Kadyrov's police and security guards who were deployed to guard Makhachkala's central square when then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Daghestan in April 2010.

More to the point, Kadyrov had established himself as the unofficial political leader of Russia's estimated 20 million Muslims by presiding over the building of mosques (including the largest mosque in Europe, named after his father), five schools for hafizes, and a clinic for the practice of Islamic medicine. (Never mind that he is seemingly unable to quote a single sura from the Koran).

It was thus no surprise to anyone when Medvedev duly nominated Kadyrov in February 2011 to serve a second term as Chechen president.

Since then, federal level politicians who once spoke of him disparagingly have begun to do so with respect. Former Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin, for example, had quipped in May 2009 a propos of Kadyrov's claim in his annual income declaration to have earned just 3.4 million rubles the previous year and to own only a small apartment in Grozny that "the entire republic belongs to Ramzan Kadyrov."

During a subsequent visit to Chechnya in June 2013, however, Stepashin could not praise Kadyrov and his achievements highly enough, referring to Chechnya as a role model for other Russian regions.

All this is not to overlook the fact that observers have periodically predicted that at some point Kadyrov would go too far in terms of his tasteless self-promotion and intemperate pronouncements, and the Kremlin would finally take steps to rein him in. Such speculation surfaced in April 2014, based on the assumption that Kadyrov had enjoyed immunity in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but that once the games ended he was vulnerable.

Whether or not there were solid grounds for such speculation, the fighting that erupted in southeastern Ukraine in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea presented Kadyrov with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty, his usefulness, and his cynicism, by dispatching his security forces to fight on the side of the pro-Russian separatist forces and then disowning them as "volunteers" who had traveled to Ukraine without the knowledge or approval of the Chechen authorities. In late May, the Financial Times quoted a Chechen fighter named Zelimkhan who said he and his comrades in arms had just been sent to Ukraine on Kadyrov's orders. More recently, Pavel Gubarev, former head of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic," told a journalist that Kadyrov "provides us with a huge amount of help, both militarily and in other respects."

Kadyrov's clandestine contribution to Putin's strategy of dismembering Ukraine, and his intermediary's role in securing the release last summer of two Russian journalists taken prisoner by the Ukrainian authorities have cemented his standing as a federal politician with no clearly defined position. The same holds true for his status as a military commander (although he holds the rank of an Interior Ministry major general).

Carnegie Moscow Center veteran analyst Dmitry Trenin recently characterized Kadyrov as Putin's "irregular fighter, and his mission is to take on Russia's -- and Putin's -- enemies." Kadyrov himself has confirmed his readiness to act in that capacity, affirming earlier this month that Chechnya has thousands of volunteer fighters who are ready "to fulfill any military command from Russia's commander-in-chief Vladimir Putin" and to defend Russia's interests anywhere on the planet, including in circumstances where the deployment of "the regular army, air force, navy or nuclear forces" is inexpedient.

Trenin went on to suggest that it is because Kadyrov is both able and willing to act in that capacity that he "has a license to say and do things no one else has," "without having to clear them with anyone in advance," such as threatening former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Ekho Moskvy head Aleksei Venediktov in response to their statements in connection with the January 7 terrorist attack in Paris on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Kadyrov may invite ridicule by his blustering and posturing. But in an article published last month in the weekly Versiya, Ruslan Gorevoy quoted analyst Andrei Okara as saying Kadyrov and Putin are "the only two real politicians in Russia today," the remainder being "either bureaucrats, or propagandists, or clowns."

Assuming that Kadyrov really is the second-most-powerful political figure in Russia, any number of questions still remain unanswered. First, what is the precise relationship between him and Putin? Did Putin realize Kadyrov's potential as a national military leader and play Pygmalion, molding him into a figure who would willingly undertake commissions that violate international law? Or did Kadyrov take advantage of the freedom of action and total impunity Putin gave him in order to indulge some psychopathic tendencies and insatiable appetite for power?

More crucially, has Kadyrov indeed become the tail that wags the Kremlin dog? Or does Putin still retain some hold over him? Judging by Putin's warning to Kadyrov last month that he should abide by Russian law rather than engage in extrajudicial reprisals against insurgents' families, that is the impression Putin would like to give.

Finally, will Kadyrov eventually demand some more senior official position in recognition of Putin's dependence on him, and if so, what might it be? Or will he be constrained to content himself with the twin roles of commander of what amounts to Putin's private army and unofficial spokesman for Russia's Muslims?

-- 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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