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The Indispensable Mr. Kadyrov? Questions About Chechen Leader's Health Prompt New Questions About Region's Future

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What happens when Chechnya’s tough-guy leader finally leaves power?

Rumors of Ramzan Kadyrov’s coronavirus-induced demise may have been exaggerated.

Questions about the Chechen leader’s political future, however, and that of the Kremlin’s two-decade approach toward the North Caucasus region, persist.

Last week, Kadyrov, 43, reportedly was hospitalized in a Moscow clinic to be treated for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Five days of anonymously sourced reports, denials by his allies, and silence from Kadyrov himself added to the mystery.

On May 26, he appeared in photos and video released by the region’s government-run TV channel, shown attending a meeting in the Chechen capital, Grozny, for the first time since reports of his hospitalization.

Kadyrov was shown chairing a meeting in Grozny on May 26 for the first time since his hospitalization.
Kadyrov was shown chairing a meeting in Grozny on May 26 for the first time since his hospitalization.

Photos published on his official Telegram channel showed Kadyrov seated at a round table, meeting government officials, many wearing masks, all seated at some distance from him. Kadyrov was not wearing a mask.

Later on May 27, a video was posted on the account of Akhmed Dudaev, a Kadyrov ally and head of Chechnya’s TV network. In the video, Kadyrov discusses his health, saying, "Even if I did get sick, millions of people also got the virus. Thousands died. What am I? Not a human? Don’t I have the right to get sick? Don’t I have the right to take pills and increase my immune system? I am an absolutely healthy person.”

For close watchers of both North Caucasus politics and Kremlin policy, the bigger question wasn’t about whether Kadyrov was in fact seriously ill; it was about what happens to Chechnya when Kadyrov ultimately does leave power.

“It’s clear that people are worried,” said Svetlana Gannushkina, a veteran rights activist known for her work with refugees fleeing Chechnya’s wars. “People may personally have different experiences as far as [Kadyrov] is concerned, but everyone is concerned about his absence, and what happens next.”

Moreover, it’s the second time in five months that Kadyrov has abruptly dropped out of sight, and for Kadyrov’s enemies in the Kremlin or elsewhere, that’s all the more reason to plan for what comes next.

“Ramzan is a source of great irritation” for one segment of the Russian political elite, said Aleksei Malashenko, a longtime Moscow-based expert on North Caucasus and Central Asia. “In the federal center, they’re sick of him, but no one knows what the alternative will be.”

Chechenization

The second Chechen war that accompanied President Vladimir Putin’s initial term in office in 2000 saw a different Kremlin strategy for fighting insurgents and radical Islamic militants. The new strategy was called “chechenization” -- essentially letting the local Chechen forces take the lead in waging war.

Akhmad Kadyrov, a mufti who battled Russian government forces during the first war in the 1990s, was tapped to be the political leader for “chechenization.” He was elected the region’s president in October 2003 but only served seven months before being assassinated in a bomb blast in May 2004.

Akhmad Kadyrov (left) with his son Ramzan in March 2004
Akhmad Kadyrov (left) with his son Ramzan in March 2004

In February 2007, Kadyrov’s youngest son, Ramzan, turned 30, and replaced the caretaker leader installed after Kadyrov’s assassination.

The policy of “chechenization” also included showering the impoverished region with federal funding as a way to build up the economy, cut stubbornly high unemployment, and buy the loyalty of Chechen elites.

After his election, Kadyrov oversaw a sweeping reconstruction of Grozny, which had been bombed into ruins, mainly by Russian forces. Unemployment dropped sharply, though most jobs were public sector, dependent on federal budget transfers.

Kadyrov also built a paramilitary force called the “kadyrovtsy” that became effectively his own army. The force has been accused of rampant rights abuses, including abductions, assassinations, and even collective punishment, whereby entire villages, or families, are targeted for the alleged crimes of a single individual.

In 2017, human rights groups and reporters documented a campaign by Chechen authorities that targeted gay and bisexual men. The campaign, known as a “gay purge,” drew international outrage and embarrassed the Kremlin, even as it sought to downplay the effort.

Asked by an interviewer about the alleged purge, Kadyrov responded: “We don't have those kinds of people here. We don't have any gays. If there are any, take them to Canada,” he said.

“Take them far from us so we don't have them at home. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”

Kadyrov also tolerated no criticism, either of himself or Putin. In 2019, he threatened to kill, imprison, or harass people who insult others, anonymously, on the Internet.

COVID-19

Earlier this year, as the coronavirus pandemic swept across Russia, Kadyrov downplayed potential dangers. On March 11, he told Chechens that they should not be afraid of the virus, suggesting that fear itself would be deadly. Thirteen days later, the region announced its first confirmed case.

On April 20, Kadyrov visited a Grozny hospital, wearing a protective suit and mask for some of the visit and then, after removing his protective gear, taking selfies with some medical workers.

Kadyrov wore a protective suit for part of a visit to a Grozny hospital on April 20 ...
Kadyrov wore a protective suit for part of a visit to a Grozny hospital on April 20 ...
... but then later removed it and took selfies with medical workers.
... but then later removed it and took selfies with medical workers.

Still later, when some Chechen medical workers were reported complaining that they lacked proper protective equipment, Kadyrov criticized the workers themselves and defended the regional government’s response to the disease.

Then, on May 21, anonymous officials were quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that Kadyrov was undergoing unspecified medical treatment. A day later, the Telegram channel Baza and the Interfax news agency said Kadyrov had been flown to Moscow for treatment of COVID-19.

The reports were met with repeated denials by Kadyrov’s main lieutenants and allies in Grozny.

The head of the regional legislature called the reports “gossip.” The region’s information minister posted a quotation to his Instagram account, purportedly from Kadyrov, that ridiculed the rumors. But the post neither confirmed nor denied he had been hospitalized.

Notably, Adam Delimkhanov, a cousin of Kadyrov and a lawmaker in the federal parliament, said in a post to his own Instagram account that Chechens were concerned about Kadyrov and that they were praying for him.

In the videos and photos posted on May 26, Russian experts examined Kadyrov’s demeanor and appearance for clues to his health. A glimpse of something that appeared to be an intravenous catheter on his right hand prompted more speculation on Telegram channels and VK chat rooms. He was not wearing a mask.

Some commentators said Kadyrov appeared to be suffering a physical ailment: “a person suffering a severe malaise on his legs: pale, thin, with a swollen face, he has shortness of breath and obvious physical weakness,” wrote Yelena Milashina, a Novaya gazeta newspaper reporter whose reporting has infuriated Kadyrov in the past.

Malashenko agreed Kadyrov appeared unwell and believed he was suffering from something more serious.

While perpetually a subject for parlor-room speculation, Kadyrov’s political future has not been under genuine debate until this year, experts said.

In early April, as Russian authorities moved to curb the spreading coronavirus, Kadyrov ordered Chechnya’s borders with the rest of Russia closed. That prompted an unusual public rebuke from Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

This, combined with Kadyrov’s brief absence in January, Malashenko said, means the discussions about Kadyrov’s future are now more urgent in the Kremlin.

Personality Politics

Last September, seated across the wooden table from Putin, Kadyrov smirked as he described rebuilding the once war-ravaged region.

“We remember how it was, a certain number of years ago,” Putin told Kadyrov. “The situation has changed dramatically, thanks to the efforts and talents of the Chechen people, and to your persistent efforts.”

Asked if a gigantic newly opened mosque was indeed the biggest in Europe, Kadyrov smiled and said, “Yes, it is, and it’s the most beautiful one in Europe” -- a point Putin pushed back on, suggesting instead one in St. Petersburg, Putin’s hometown, was more beautiful.

“Well, I can’t argue with you on that point,” Kadyrov responded, laughing.

Among the explanations for Kadyrov’s staying power is the apparent personal relationship that Kadyrov has nurtured with Putin, allowing him autonomy to rule Chechnya as his own personal fiefdom.

In Moscow, “people coming to power are tired of this informal relationship,” Malashenko said. “Sooner or later, he will go, but no one knows what will replace him.”

“There will be instability, there won’t be separatism, and it’s unlikely there will be civil war, but there will be serious instability,” Malashenko said.

Gannushkina, the rights activist, said the problem was that the Kremlin had allowed Kadyrov free rein, without serious challenge or planning for leadership built around another personality.

Dictatorships often give way to power vacuums, uncertainty and chaos; she said: Chechens may be tired, or fearful, of Kadyrov and his antics, but they also don’t want a return to war and chaos, she said.

“Kadyrov has absolute power, even for medical decisions,” she said. “All decisions belong to him, solely. His departure could be the beginning of chaos, and there’s no way to know for sure. It’s a typical situation for dictators.”

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