MOSCOW -- Ramzan Kadyrov may have unexpectedly announced that the time has come for him to step down, but analysts say Chechnya's strongman leader of the past decade has no intention of quitting and was primarily seeking public affirmation of his power from the Kremlin.
By raising the prospect of his departure on November 26, they say, the man who describes himself as President Vladimir Putin's "foot soldier" emphasized his importance to the central authorities as a guarantor of stability in a southern Russian region long riven by conflict.
The comments could also serve to put pressure on and win concessions from Moscow on federal financing for the heavily subsidized region as the government moves toward adopting a state budget for the next three years.
Out of the blue, in the final moments of a wide-ranging, 44-minute interview aired on Rossia 1 state TV, Kadyrov said it was "his dream" to leave power, saying the job is "very difficult" and that "it is time for change in the Chechen republic."
During the extended clip, in which he appeared in black, also firing weapons, boxing, riding a horse, and strolling around sumptuous gardens and buildings, Kadyrov called Putin his "idol," saying he would be prepared to die for him.
"This is basic Russian bureaucratic ethics, but with an eastern twist," says Yekaterina Shulman, a Moscow-based political analyst. "To be a good public bureaucrat in Russia you have to say from time to time that you aren't holding onto your position; that at the same time you absolutely do not want any other position; that you will do whatever the president tells you to do in whatever place you may be called to serve the motherland."
A 'Foot Soldier' Seeks Approval
Putin appointed Kadyrov head of the southern Russian republic of Chechnya in 2007, a post he had ruled from the shadows for several years after the assassination of his father as he was then too young to officially hold the post.
A former warlord who emerged from two bloody conflicts in the mainly Islamic republic, Kadyrov has been accused of widespread human rights abuses, allegations he denies, while his supporters credit him with bringing order to the troubled region.
Kadyrov has threatened liberal critics of the Russian president, describing them as "enemies of the people" and "traitors." He regularly speaks of his unwavering loyalty to Putin. In December 2014, he gathered thousands of armed soldiers in a stadium in the Chechen capital, Grozny, and described them as "Putin's foot soldiers," saying they were ready to carry out any mission no matter how difficult.
In February 2016, Kadyrov unexpectedly announced his intention to step down as his term as head of the republic was approaching its end in April. The following month, Putin again named Kadyrov acting head of the region, effectively granting him another term and positioning him for reelection with some 97 percent of the official vote months later.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, calls Kadyrov's latest pronouncements a "rhetorical formula" and "nothing more."
"It has no correlation to reality, and, of course, no one is going anywhere. It is simply an expression of his servility to authorities who could remove him at any moment if he stops satisfying them. Nothing more," Kolesnikov says. "This is coquetry in the most direct sense. As any public interview at the moment, it has little relation to reality."
Kolesnikov says Kadyrov routinely seeks public feedback from the Kremlin as well as approval, and he cast a comment from Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov the following day in that light. Kolesnikov says that after this statement, Kadyrov will likely "calm down if, that is, he was worried at all."
On November 27, Peskov affirmed Kadyrov's position in comments carried by the TASS news agency, saying, "Kadyrov has repeatedly said he is, speaking figuratively, quite a consistent and committed member of Putin's circle of supporters and intends to continue working where and how the president orders him."
Bigger Piece Of The Pie
Shulman says that Kadyrov's statement may also be designed to win concessions from Moscow in the form of further budget allocations.
Chechnya is one of the largest regional recipients of subsidies from Moscow. And as the budget is drawn up, all the country's regions are vying for the largest stake they can get from the capital amid belt-tightening necessitated by shrinking oil and gas revenues and Western sanctions and countersanctions.
"Everyone is playing this blackmail game, but of course Chechnya has the most leverage. Of course the message is: 'What will you do if I decide to leave? What will you do if something happens to me?'" Shulman explains, adding in a reference to Islamist radicals who have vowed to punish Russia for its actions in Syria and elsewhere. "Because once I leave you will have [militant group] Islamic State and chaos here."
The federal budget, which allocates financing to the regions, has already been passed by the State Duma, but still requires approval in the upper house and Putin's signature. This means that formal amendments are no longer possible, but there is still room to redistribute allocations for the regions and so there is still an incentive to fight for these allocations, Shulman says.
"Within the budget, there are opportunities for the finance minister to maneuver things and move them around," she said. "There's also a presidential budget that is within the federal budget, which the president can use through decree. This sum by the way has been growing higher and higher from year to year."
Kadyrov has been accused of presiding over egregious rights violations that include execution-style killings and disappearances of activists and journalists, torture, and other abuses, as well as an alleged official campaign targeting members of the LGBT community of his northern Caucasus republic. Kadyrov denies any wrongdoing.