Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 9

Chechen President Alu Alkhanov said on March 1 that he had accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Sergei Abramov and would name his successor later in the week, the Associated Press reported. Alkhanov first announced Abramov’s resignation in a Moscow press conference on February 28, saying that Abramov, who was injured in a car accident in November, was stepping down for health reasons. Abramov, however, denied he was quitting due to poor health, saying instead that he was stepping down to make way for Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been serving as acting prime minister since Abramov’s accident. Moreove, while Alkhanov said a successor would be named later in the week, the speaker of the lower house of Chechnya’s parliament, Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov, was all but unequivocal that Kadyrov would become the new prime minister. “I can responsibly state that at the moment there is no more suitable a candidate for the post of Chechen prime minister than Ramzan Kadyrov,” gazeta.ru on February 28 quoted Abdurakhmanov as saying. “The People’s Assembly [the lower house of Chechnya’s parliament] unconditionally supports this candidacy upon its submission by the Chechen president for consideration.” According to gazeta.ru, Abdurakhmanov indicated he had no doubt Alkhanov would nominate Kadyrov, who, he said, “has proved that he is not only a warrior but a quickly growing politician capable of solving the most difficult tasks.”

Indeed, while Kadyrov said that Abramov’s decision to step down had caught him by surprise (although Kadyrov had earlier told Kommersant-Vlast that Abramov might step down as prime minister if he was “tired” and that work might be found for Abramov in Moscow), and Abramov himself had earlier insisted he was planning to return to Grozny and resume his prime ministerial duties (see Chechnya Weekly, February 16), many observers have for some time believed that Kadyrov is the sole power-holder in the republic. Some observers had also predicted that Kadyrov would soon become Chechen prime minister on his way to assuming the republic’s presidency after he reaches the minimum constitutional age of 30 next autumn (see Chechnya Weekly, February 2).

“Kadyrov is the true master of Chechnya, and his power over that republic is based not on such stupid things as the status of premier or president,” wrote Yulia Latynina in an item posted on ej.ru, the website of Yezhednevny zhurnal magazine, on March 1. “It is based on the ability to do with his subjects, including [his] closest associates, anything at any time. Chechnya under Kadyrov enjoys more independence from Moscow than under Maskhadov. The federals are afraid to stick their noses outside and they drink heavily behind the walls of Khankala, which has turned from a military base into a reservation.”

Kavkazky Uzel on February 28 quoted Tatyana Lokshina, chair of the Demos human rights think-tank, as saying: “When Sergei Abramov got into a car accident, everyone first of all suspected that Kadyrov was involved in it, because Abramov, being…head of the Chechen Republic’s government, was to a large extent ‘sitting’ on federal money. I myself, normally rejecting conspiracy theories, don’t hold to such an opinion. Now, when it’s obvious that Abramov will not return to work, there is no point in debating whether Ramzan Kadyrov was in some way involved in the notorious car accident. One thing is completely clear: that Abramov was removed both as head of Chechnya’s government and also as the main person controlling the money there…I think that the Kremlin was abreast of Sergei Abramov’s impending resignation. I think the Kremlin sanctioned what was already a fait accompli. They didn’t make the decision they thought correct, but rather resigned themselves to reality.”

It should be noted, however, that Kadyrov has been apparently forced into tactical retreat on one front. After President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, Dmitry Kozak, confirmed on February 22 that prosecutors are examining the legality of Kadyrov’s ban on the activities of Danish organizations in Chechnya in response to the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad (see Chechnya Weekly, February 23), Kadyrov first backed off his statement and then said that the Danish Refugee Council could resume its work in the republic.

Kadyrov told journalists in Kurchaloi on February 23 that the Chechen government had not issued any instruction or directive banning the council’s activities in Chechnya. “As a Muslim and a Chechen practicing Islam, I had to say that I condemn those who published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad,” Interfax quoted Kadyrov as saying. “Moreover, I can’t understand the Danish leadership’s unwillingness to decry the incident immediately. If the Danes don’t respect a global religion, if they don’t respect the feelings of one-and-a-half billion Muslims, then how can we not respond to this as citizens and believers?” Still, Kadyrov said that a letter circulated by Chechen Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs Khalid Vaikhanov prohibiting the Danish council’s activities was “recommendatory in its nature” and “designed to safeguard those working under the Danish Refugee Council’s auspices in Chechnya.”

Later on February 23, Kadyrov told journalists in Grozny that he would not take back his criticism of Denmark, saying, “The Danes have insulted us and they must answer for it,” and accused NGO staff of working as intelligence agents in Chechnya. According to Agence France-Presse, Kadyrov also “shrugged off” Kozak’s request to prosecutors to determine the legality of making the teaching of the Koran and Sharia mandatory in Chechen schools. “I have never violated Russian law,” Kadyrov said. “Let prosecutors come to our republic and do all they please; they have nothing to fish for here.”

On February 26, Kadyrov backed off even further, telling journalists in Grozny following a meeting with visiting Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles that Gil-Robles had asked him to permit the Danish Refugee Council to operate in Chechnya. “Tonight we will gather together in the presence of representatives of the FSB [Federal Security Service], MVD [Interior Ministry] [and] prosecutor’s office, and will discuss tasks connected to providing security for staff of the Danish Refugee Council,” Kavkazky Uzel quoted Kadyrov as saying. ” I think that tomorrow or the day after tomorrow this organization will be able to resume its work.” On February 27, Kadyrov again said the decision to end the activities of Danish humanitarian groups in Chechnya had been strictly a “recommendation,” RIA Novosti reported. “Everyone knows what enormous and invaluable aid the Danish Refugee Council rendered to Chechens during the years of the counter-terrorist operation in the Chechen Republic,” Kadyrov said. “It is the only humanitarian organization that did not stop working even when the rest of the organizations curtailed their activities because of the threat to the lives of their staff.” Kadyrov stressed that “even for one of those reasons I could not have anything against the work of this organization.” Still, he said that he stood by his denunciation of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons and had taken appropriate measures to avoid a “conflict situation” (by which he presumably meant violence against aid workers by angry Muslims.)

Yet while Kadyrov may have backed down in the face of federal pressure concerning the ban on Danish organizations, some observers believe that it is a temporary tactical move. Tatyana Lokshina of the Demos think-tank noted in her comments to the Kavkazky Uzel website that the federal authorities have occasionally taken measures to control Kadyrov—but with little success. She noted that before the start of Chechnya’s parliamentary campaign last year, many experts said the Kremlin was looking for the new parliament to become a counter-weight to Kadyrov. Yet when it became “absolutely clear that Kadyrov had gotten the election campaign under him and that the parliament would become yet another mechanism which he could use to rule undivided, the federal center did not take any measures and seemingly…was at a loss. The situation with Abramov is the same story. Ramzan Kadyrov has a lot of power, he has a lot of funds at his disposal and he runs the Chechen Republic like a little kingdom ruled exclusively by him.” Lokshina added that her contacts in Chechnya have no doubt that Kadyrov will become president.

Commentator Leonid Radzikhovsky, for his part, wrote in an item posted by Politkom.ru on February 24 that the notion Kadyrov is “entirely independent” of Moscow is exaggerated. “For all Kadyrov’s disconnectedness and independence, he is, of course, a vassal of Moscow,” he wrote. “His detachments are a force, the main real force in Chechnya. But without the aid of the Russian Army (or at least the specter of that army) it is unlikely that Kadyrov’s detachments could feel so confident in Chechnya…A symbiosis. The Kremlin needs Kadyrov. Nobody could suppress resistance and hold Chechnya better than he. Kadyrov is the guarantor of ‘peace in Chechnya.’ And this, in turn, is absolutely necessary for the Kremlin…But Kadyrov also needs the Kremlin. Without that support—financial, military, and psychological—he would not hold out in his capacity as ‘Master of the Mountains.’ But Kadyrov is inclined to pull too often and too hard on the ‘rope of Moscow’s patience.’ And then Moscow tugs the rope slightly. Which is what we are observing now.”