The Big Boss Runs for President
Usman Dikayev, special to Prague Watchdog
According to official reports from Chechnya, everything in this small republic is rapidly returning to normal; and only occasionally do explosions or shootouts between federal soldiers and rebels interrupt the calm. Terrorists are regularly reported to have been caught before any assassination attempts or bombings can take place. All in all, the country is firmly in the hands of the local authorities and their head, Akhmad Kadyrov, who recently began calling himself “acting president” in accordance with the new Chechen constitution. According to many locals, however, Kadyrov holds the reins of power far more tightly than his superiors can imagine.
Kadyrov is a former mufti (a Muslim legal expert who gives rulings on religious issues). Many a Chechen recalls seeing Kadyrov on local television, almost fanatically urging armed resistance and calling for a holy war against the Russian army. Therefore, it was quite surprising when he suddenly appeared on the political scene late in 1999; not as a field commander of a Chechen resistance group, but as pretender to the throne relinquished by Aslan Maskhadov, President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. At that time, Kadyrov was a puppet of Moscow, a leading figure in their game plan, and staunchly spouting Kremlin rhetoric.
It is incredible that a man known for speaking out so venomously against Russians would suddenly metamorphose overnight and become the head of the pro-Russian administration, and also end up as one of the two most prominent representatives of Moscow's policy in Chechnya. The other being Beslan Gantamirov, who was serving a 6-year sentence for embezzlement in a Russian prison and whom the federal authorities subsequently freed.
Actors were required for this new political show, so one got the part as head of the administration, and the other acted as mayor of the Chechen capital.
Local citizens have nicknamed Kadyrov “Ivan,” probably because his rhetoric and public appearances strongly remind them of many communist leaders in the former Soviet bloc. He is not well educated, yet he is energetic and congenial even though his speeches consist of vague phrases mixed with strong statements. However, he curtly and ruthlessly dismisses all critics according to his prepared script: first a compromise, then criticism through the media, followed by a voluntary resignation of the person involved. In the worse case scenario, “Chechen terrorists” murder Kadyrov’s adversary.
One key element of Kadyrov’s success is his allegiance to the high Chechen Beno clan, which guarantees him loyalty and forced support of many Chechens. At the same time he was able to understand that the Kremlin’s political decisions are not based on knowledge of the situation, but on information provided by the people living in Chechnya. As long as a man is able to correctly formulate and modulate this information, it is possible to successfully manipulate not only public opinion (about which the federal government-run media is greatly concerned), but also the politicians in Moscow.
Although Kadyrov indisputably belongs among the most unpopular figure in Chechnya, he is carefully building up his image on the Russian political and media scene as the Number One Chechen. Yet at the same time he rejects any form of criticism and signs of competition. When he was at an official affair in Moscow, for example, and suddenly spotted Malik Saidullayev, one of the Chechen presidential candidates, across the room with Russian President Vladimir Putin and First Lady Lyudmila, he did not hesitate to later appear on television and attack him. Kadyrov accused Saidullayev of hiding out in Moscow, and added that Saidullayev's relatives prefer shopping in England to contributing to the welfare of Chechnya.
The Future President
For many months now Akhmad Kadyrov has been actively working on becoming the new Chechen president. Elections will be held, as slated by the Kremlin, at the beginning of October. He was the first to endorse a plan to participate in the election; and immediately thereafter set about removing people from key positions who were not favorably inclined toward him. After he successfully ousted Chechen Premier Mikhail Babich, several officials of various power structures became next in line.
At first, Musa Gazimagomadov, commander of the special unit of the Ministry of Interior (OMON), became injured under mysterious circumstances. This happened during the time when Kadyrov forced the Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Tsakayev to resign; a month later Tsakayev allegedly died of a heart attack. Rumor has it in Chechnya that a few days before his death, Tsakayev was badly beaten by a group of men led by Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan.
Chechnya now has a new Interior Minister, Alu Alkhanov, who is Kadyrov’s supporter. The new OMON commander is called also Alkhanov - Ruslan Alkhanov. He is the former commander of Kadyrov’s security forces.
Chechen intellectuals have no illusions about what is going on. They are aware that candidates who even remotely look like they could win the presidency are gradually eliminated and replaced by loyalists. Tsakayev and Gazimagomadov, for example, strongly protested against accepting former criminal gang members into the police force. It is no secret that Kadyrov disliked this since he created his security guards from these several thousand loyal young men.
No one in Chechnya doubts that Kadyrov will be their future president, no matter how and for whom the citizens will vote. News is spreading throughout the republic that his security forces are prepared to enter into armed conflict should their lord and master lose the race.
Nor can anyone imagine that Kadyrov would be induced to voluntarily give up lucrative presidential benefits, such as the revenue from the illegal sale of oil or federal funds earmarked for revitalizing the republic. From a safety point of view, it is vital to him to remain in power because from the minute he loses his “protective apparatus,” it would be impossible to defend himself against various blood feuds.
At the end of July, something unexpected happened that could possibly resolve this situation in Chechnya. President Putin announced that Kadyrov would be part of a Russian delegation to the United Nations. This could be an ingenious move on the part of the Kremlin, who are well aware that the popularity of their main protagonist in Chechnya is low and the danger stemming from his removal high. It might even be possible to physically remove Kadyrov and blame terrorists for the assassination but it would be difficult for Putin, prior to his own election campaign, to defend the fact that in Chechnya, supposedly on the road to normalization, the main representative of the pro-Moscow government was murdered.
Political removal has so far appeared unthinkable - at least until Putin made the above-mentioned announcement. Kadyrov will have great difficulty refusing this official function; although a cozy place in New York would at least give him a minimal guarantee of safety. In the event he will indeed be swept into the UN, another alternative arises - that the future president of Chechnya will be a new Kremlin actor, one who will also hold a high position in the secret service. Or as a favorite anecdote of Chechen members of the Federal Security Service (FSB) recounts: the new president will be a Chechen general from St. Petersburg. One must also add that Kadyrov’s nomination to the UN can only be construed as his being a willing victim of Russian foreign policy.
The Tale of Kadyrov's Regiment
The greatest safety risks in Chechnya today are not the occasional battles between Russian soldiers and Chechen guerrillas, but the high crime rate and lawlessness, which de facto permits anyone to do whatever they want if they can pay for it. Although a majority of Chechen guerrillas returned to a peaceful life, some of them got involved in criminal gangs whose business is selling oil or kidnapping people. At the same time, dozens of local bands sprang up throughout the entire country. However, from among all the groups operating in Chechnya, the most dangeorous is the "security force" of "acting president" Kadyrov. Besides relatives and friends, this "security force" comprises mostly former members of paramilitary criminal groups, who were involved in robberies and murders.
Basking in his popularity, Kadyrov allowed himself to be televised accepting arms from rebels who had decided to return to civilian life after being promised amnesty for voluntarily giving up their weapons. Actually, a great many of these are young uneducated men whose only skills were blowing up federal troops and terrorizing Chechen citizens. Now they end up in Kadyrov’s security force in order to avoid investigation, court proceedings and several years' imprisonment.
Kidnapping becomes big business
Kadyrov’s security forces and local criminal gangs are generally suspected of kidnapping Chechen citizens in order to “sell” them back to their relatives for thousands of dollars.
In the middle of 2002 several articles appeared in the Russian media about Kadyrov’s private prisons in which civilians and his political enemies and business rivals were held and supposedly interrogated. This is impossible to verify since those incarcerated are seldom set free. Local gangs usually carry out kidnappings, and negotiations are handled by a middleman who then disappears; therefore any connection between the client and kidnappers is lost.
In November of 2002 a somewhat comical incident took place of two drivers from the International Red Cross who, in a village not far from Grozny, were forcibly taken from their van and driven to an undisclosed place. During discussions that followed among the leaders of the Chechen Republic, they recommended that the head of the Chechen administration handle questions regarding the fate of these drivers. So Kadyrov appeared on television to announce that the names of the kidnappers were known and they had 24 hours in which to release the drivers. Two days later, after a successful rescue operation, the drivers were freed. Russian television subsequently announced Kadyrov was the hero of this incident since he had described the freeing of the Red Cross drivers an hour before it actually happened. Afterwards, the drivers themselves said that despite being slightly fearful, their capture reminded them of a badly organized farce.
It is publicly assumed the kidnapping was done by a well-known group of disreputable men, the head of which was Movladi Baisarov, a commander of Kadyrov’s special protection unit. He is also the prime suspect in the kidnapping of Nina Davidovich, director of the Russian humanitarian agency Druzhba, who was missing for five months.
At the end of May this year, when four members of this paramilitary group were shot by men from military counter-intelligence (GRU) in the village of Samashki, Kadyrov came to offer his sympathy to Baisarov. But at the end of July Baisarov, along with his entourage, was shot at not far from his home. This resulted in his being seriously wounded and two people killed. Officially it was reported as a Chechen terrorist attack, but a relative of one of his victims most likely carried it out.
Like all autocrats, Kadyrov is primarily interested in money. Be it from illegal oil sales, or funds taken from the federal budget, which have been vanishing for the past 3 years. For this reason, he is extremely focused on retaining the status quo. So he only supports those changes that will strengthen his position and increase his profits. From the moment that Moscow decided to bet on this horse, they have shared all the successes as well as failures, which is why his mistakes are tolerated. But the closer Russia comes to its presidential election, scheduled for the spring of 2004, the less the Kremlin wants to hear about Chechnya.
Nevertheless, for them Kadyrov is at least an apparent guarantee of stability; because replacing a political official always automatically results in regional instability. That is why the only possible solution appears to be “a promotion” - like bumping him up into international politics.
What To Do (With Him)?
As of now, the majority of Chechens are in agreement about only one issue. As long as there are people in power who are more interested in personal gain rather than in stabilizing the republic, there will never be peace in Chechnya. And Kadyrov is now the top representative of power in the republic. It is obvious he will never voluntarily relinquish this post and is prepared to defend his cushy job with a gun in each hand. It is hard to imagine the Kremlin would ever find enough coercive means of getting rid of him; so they made him an offer he can’t refuse - becoming part of the Russian delegation to the UN - and also assuring him that he and his family would receive around-the-clock bodyguards.
However, one widely discussed alternative among Chechens would be an “accident.” This could happen the minute Kadyrov becomes a lowly foot soldier. Simply replacing him is not feasible, as he knows too much about the military, the secret services and other Chechen "politicians".
After Putin’s recent announcement, Kadyrov’s winning the presidency in October seems far less likely now than it did months ago. It is quite obvious that the man who will get the job will be a candidate chosen by Moscow. Although it is unthinkable that the majority of voters would vote for Kadyrov, he is the hottest candidate on the ballot - but this is one of the worst-case scenarios for Chechnya. Kadyrov is now the most dangerous man in the republic - and one can’t set this fox to keep the geese.
Usman Dikayev is a pseudonym of a journalist living in the Northern Caucasus.
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· Website of Chechnya's Moscow-backed administration and government