Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned out to be a victim of his own success in Chechnya. Having systematically removed from the political game all possible rivals to Akhmad Kadyrov – for example by forcing the strongest contenders out of last autumn’s rigged presidential election in Chechnya – he now has no credible candidate to succeed the assassinated strongman. Some of Putin’s own allies admit this: To name just one, a member of parliament, Ramazan Abdulatipov, told Ekho Moskvy radio that “Kadyrov’s death has left a political vacuum in Chechnya. It turns out that there is no one to pick up his banner.”
One possible solution, likely to be popular with those elements in the military and security agencies who always distrusted Kadyrov and his team, might be to forego even the pretense of “Chechenization” and impose direct presidential rule. An ultra-nationalist member of parliament, Dmitry Rogozin, who is head of the Rodina party, told the Interfax news agency that he favored just that option. He called on Putin to appoint a “plenipotentiary envoy” for Chechnya.
But such a “Russification” of Chechnya’s governance could be enforced only by Russian force of arms; many of the rebels who had defected to the Kadyrov clan’s ranks would likely turn against Moscow again. As the Chechen political analyst Zaindi Choltaev observed in a May 11 interview published in Russky kurier, “Chechnya should be headed by a Chechen. Appointing a non-Chechen head of the republic would be interpreted as a gesture of distrust in the Chechen people as a whole.”
A strikingly forceful, highly pessimistic article in the May 11 issue of the popular newspaper Moskovsky komsomolets called the latest turn of events “a definitive collapse of all hope for a peaceful settlement of the situation,” and also “a powerful blow to the self-esteem of President Putin.” The newspaper called the May 9 assassination “a convincing refutation” of Putin’s own words at his May 7 inauguration: “We are halting the threat of international terrorism.”
“Objectively,” argued Moskovsky komsomolets, “the murder of Kadyrov unmistakably demonstrates the failure of the Chechnya policy which the Kremlin has been conducting. It is a mistaken policy, leading to a dead end. It is essential to change it in the most radical fashion.” This sort of tone is what one normally associates with the most daring reformist media such as Novaya gazeta, not with the populist Moskovsky komsomolets. It suggests that Putin has less hope than ever of winning the battle for public opinion on this issue – though he may choose simply to continue ignoring public opinion on Chechnya and to rely on his increasingly undisputed control of all the key levers of power.
The detailed Moskovsky komsomolets analysis demonstrated that at least some Russian commentators realize that the option of “Russification,” though tempting, would not offer a way out of the current dead end: “From the standpoint of the central government, Kadyrov’s death has some positive elements along with the negative ones. The Kremlin has now been given the opportunity to place at the head of the republic a person who would not be as strong as Kadyrov but somewhat weaker, in the hope that such a person would not strive to win ever more independence for his own political structure. But unfortunately, it would be extremely difficult to implement such an option. It is impossible to appoint a Russian to that post: He would be loyal to the Kremlin but unable to do anything within Chechnya because he would have no support there. Whereas any Chechen, even the most obedient and well-disciplined, sooner or later would decide that he wants to have it all for himself – all of Chechnya and all political power within it, seceding from the Russians in practice if not formally.”
As of May 10, the Putin administration was in fact not choosing radical change but continuity. As required by the “Kadyrov constitution” that took force last year after a rigged referendum, Prime Minister Sergei Abramov will now be Chechnya’s acting president until a special election can be held. Ramzan Kadyrov, son of the late Akhmad, was named as his vice premier.
Almost nobody sees Abramov, an ethnic Russian, as a long term leader of the republic; one of the reasons he was acceptable to the elder Kadyrov was precisely that he did not have any political base of his own within the republic. Both in strength of will and in the firepower of his ruthless private army, the young Kadyrov will easily outclass his nominal boss. But on the other hand, Ramzan Kadyrov is considerably less polished and less well-educated than his father, who had studied Islamic theology abroad. He also has less administrative experience, except perhaps in running athletic organizations. If the Putin administration decides to throw its full weight behind Ramzan he may be able to control Chechnya by sheer terror – after all, that was the specialty he employed for his father – but he is utterly unsuited for presenting a civilized face to foreigners or for that matter to Russians.
According to the May 11 issue of Russky kurier, Taus Dzhabrailov, the pro-Moscow administration’s former minister for ethnic affairs, has now also been named as a vice-premier.
Who in fact killed Kadyrov? The most obvious candidate is the terrorist warlord Shamil Basaev, who offered a cash award for Kadyrov’s head years ago. But as of May 10 Basaev had not claimed responsibility (nor had any other individual or group), and it is more characteristic of him to make exaggerated claims of his achievements than to understate or deny them. On the other hand, Basaev may understand that the blow to the pro-Moscow forces’ morale is made more devastating precisely by the uncertainty about who did it. The website Gzt.ru cited “many specialists” (whom it failed to identify) who believe “that the bold assassination was possible only thanks to betrayal by someone within Kadyrov’s closest inner circle.”
Even if the assassin was not quite one of the “closest” of Kadyrov’s men, we must not forget that the Kadyrov family’s private army is full of defectors who only recently were fighting for the separatist cause. One cannot exclude the possibility that these defectors included some who ostensibly switched sides precisely for the purpose of getting inside Kadyrov’s heavy guard. Alternatively, defectors who initially were sincere in their expressions of new loyalty to Kadyrov may have become disillusioned after experiencing the Kadyrov team’s continued failure to end or even to diminish the suffering of their countrymen.
Aslan Magomadov, the Kadyrov administration’s vice premier, suggested that the self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky might have been involved in the assassination. Aslan Maskhadov, on the other hand, nominated Russia’s security agencies. (Others have said that such a theory is at least possible. It is worth noting that Kadyrov’s assassination took place less than two weeks after his strongest ever criticism of the Russian authorities, in the wake of a trial that failed to convict several Spetsnaz officers who had killed six Chechen civilians.) Whatever the merits or demerits of these two hypotheses, they happen to coincide with the political interests of those offering them. Gennady Gudkov, on the other hand, a member of the federal Duma’s committee on security, conceded that the assassination probably was indeed an inside job conducted by a turncoat within the Kadyrov team. “From the point of view of the terrorists,” he told Gzt.ru, “this was a brilliantly conducted operation – and a failure by our own special services.”
Doubts remain about how many were killed, and about just who was killed. It is noteworthy that initial estimates of casualties were higher than the figures reported later; since both the Putin and the Kadyrov administrations have histories of lying about death tolls, it may be that the initial reports were more accurate. It is obvious that the bomb was precisely targeted at the most prestigious part of the V.I.P. stand, so perhaps there were at least injuries among high ranking Chechen or Russian officials that have yet to be reported. According to Gzt.ru, the head of Chechnya’s state council (its ersatz parliament), Khusein Isaev, was standing next to Kadyrov and speaking with him at the very moment of the explosion, at 10:32 a.m. Sunday. Isaev is one of the six people officially acknowledged as of Monday to have been killed. The other four (besides Kadyrov) were two bodyguards, Reuters journalist Adlan Khasanov and an unidentified 8-year-old girl. (According to the May 11 issue of Russky kurier, a seventh man, whose name the newspaper did not publish, died of his wounds in a hospital on the evening of May 10.) Some sixty-six people were reported by Gzt.ru to have been in need of medical help. Among the most seriously wounded was General Valery Baranov, the Russian armed service’s top field commander in the Chechen theater; as of Monday he was in the military hospital in Mozdok.
The weapon used by the assassins, whoever they may have been, was said to have been an artillery shell converted into a bomb. The Gzt.ru account said that security personnel found another bomb in the stadium, which had been set to explode twenty minutes after the first. Also reportedly found was a bottle filled with plastic explosives. The two bombs, unlike the bottle, apparently had been planted long in advance – lodged in the concrete structure of the stadium itself, which had recently been almost totally rebuilt after having been largely destroyed by military action in both wars. “Even preliminary investigation made it clear that the artillery shell was first placed into position, then immured in a brick covering,” wrote Gzt.ru. “Also found were wires covered with cement, leading from the bombs to the area outside the stadium.” It would seem that this attack was carefully planned long in advance, in such a way as to confound even high-tech defenses: The bombs would not have been noticeable on a metal detector thanks to the usual metallic elements in the stadium’s basic structure.
The restoration of the stadium had been carried out by a municipal agency in charge of residential housing; the personnel of that agency will undoubtedly now be thoroughly interrogated and investigated.
According to Russky kurier, the interior ministry of the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya claims that the attack may not have been directed personally against Kadyrov. “Nobody knew until the last minute whether he would even be at the stadium,” said an unnamed official of that ministry. “The president was a very busy man and might on that day have been anywhere on a working trip. Moreover, nobody could know that he was going to stay for the concert after the military parade was over. It was an accident.” Rudnik Dudaev, head of the Kadyrov administration’s security council, similarly told the news agency Novosti that originally it had not been planned that Kadyrov would visit that particular stadium for the holiday. These officials’ words should of course be treated with caution, since they have a strong interest in deflecting charges that their negligence may have contributed to Kadyrov’s death.
An equally self serving theory came from Buvadi Dakhiev, deputy commander of the pro-Moscow Chechen OMON, who told Milena Bakhvalova of Russky kurier in an interview published on May 11 that the explosion could not have been the work of unreliable ex-rebels within the Kadyrov administration’s security forces because “the bomb was placed in 2002. They kept it there for so long [without detonating it] specifically in order to get Kadyrov.”
The efforts of the security agencies, both Russian and Chechen, to track down the killers had brought no success as of the end of the day on May 10. Russky kurier reported on May 11 that sixteen people had been detained, but then released. With familiar bravado, the Russian military’s regional headquarters told Russky kurier that “they [the killers] are known, only there is not yet proof.”