Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 12

Chechnya’s upcoming presidential election, like its recent referendum, will be an exercise in court politics disguised as a popular vote. From their early maneuvers it would seem that both Akhmad Kadyrov, widely seen as the early front runner, and his rivals are assuming that the final outcome will be decided by just one man, Vladimir Putin. That assumption is almost certainly correct. It would also seem that they believe that Putin has yet to make up his mind. Even if that second assumption is wrong, it is clearly in the Kremlin’s interest to have various candidates competing for its favor and allowing it to play them off against each other.

Even at this early stage, with the exact date of Election Day still undecided, the Russian media have begun analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the various candidates and potential candidates. And, of course, the competing camps have begun using leaks and rumors to try to influence those media analyses. On April 7 the website Gzt.ru published what will undoubtedly be one of many such examples of this genre, which at this point are useful mainly to suggest who is siding with whom. Such alliances are eminently reversible between now and December, however.

As noted by both Gzt.ru and other media, Kadyrov has begun with a show of confidence. He announced at a Moscow press conference the resignation of the pro-Moscow administration’s minister of the interior, Ruslan Tsakaev, and accused him of absenteeism. Kadyrov’s intent was evidently to increase his own power over the administration and to do so in demonstrative fashion. Whether he succeeds will of course depend on whether he gets to name the minister’s successor. The pro-Kremlin website Utro.ru noted on April 8 that Tsakaev had been not a Kadyrov loyalist but “a creature of the federal center.” Tsakaev himself told journalists on April 7 that he had resigned because of disagreements over personnel policies, such as the insistence by the Kadyrov team on recruiting amnestied rebel guerrillas to be policemen.

Asked at his own press conference whom he saw as his main competitors, Kadyrov said “I don’t see anyone! Because I am in Chechnya, and where are these candidates?” He thus indirectly confirmed that he sees his main rivals as members of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow (who would be legally ineligible to run if the republic’s newly adopted constitution had included a provision unsuccessfully sought by Kadyrov). He also announced that he would have the support of former Grozny mayor and ex-convict Bislan Gantemirov, who supported the federal side in both of the Chechen wars.

The website Grani.ru suggested that Moscow may be on the verge of entrusting unprecedentedly large sums of money to Kadyrov, ostensibly for the purpose of compensating Chechens who have lost their homes to military action. Up to now, according to that website’s sources, such subsidies have been controlled by federal bureaucrats working in Chechnya but responsible to the Moscow center. But a “well-informed” government source quoted by the same website says that: “Kadyrov’s men will draw up the lists and decide how to pay”–with construction materials, with houses ready for occupancy or with money. Everyone takes it for granted, said the website’s source, that the prices quoted for the houses or the construction materials will be padded so that there will be money left over to pay for Kadyrov’s election campaign.

However, correspondents Rustem Falyakhov and Andrei Reut suggested in their analysis published by the Gzt.ru website that “the prospects for Akhmad Kadyrov are not so clearly guaranteed.” They noted that the Kremlin had excluded him from the process, now underway, of drawing up a crucial document–the treaty between Chechnya and the federal center. Heads of local administrative districts in Chechnya have been invited to submit suggestions for the draft treaty, but its final text “will be written in Moscow, not Grozny.”

Meanwhile, according to the Gzt.ru analysis, Kadyrov’s potential opponents “are also actively vying for the Kremlin’s support. For example, the president of the ‘Alliance’ group, Musa Bazhaev, is spreading claims about his close, even informal ties with the leadership of the Kremlin administration. A source close to Bazhaev told Gazeta that the president’s chief of staff, Aleksandr Voloshin, and his deputy, Vladislav Surkov, have even dined at Bazhaev’s home.”

The analysis went on to suggest that Bazhaev’s older brother Mavlid, former minister of food in Chechnya and now also a Moscow businessman, might become a surprise candidate. He too is now rumored to have been a Kremlin guest. But there are said to be even stronger potential candidates. They are the former speaker of the federal parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, and the former head of the Chechen parliament, Malik Saidullaev.

What makes Khasbulatov unusual is that he is an outspoken opponent of Putin’s policies in Chechnya. Another such opponent is Salambek Maigov, Moscow representative of the underground separatist government. But Falyakhov and Reut observed that, due to the nature of his current post, he is in no position to recognize the election as legitimate by participating in it. Of the other candidates on their list, they wrote that Saidullaev has been trying to get closer and closer to the Kremlin insiders, while the others “simply parade their loyalty to the federal center.”

In a telephone interview with Jamestown, a former official of the separatist government now living in the West mentioned yet another possibility: Federal Security Service (FSB) Major General Said Peshkhoev. He was also once head of the pro-Moscow administration’s branch of the Interior Ministry.

According to the Gzt.ru analysis, two other potential candidates–businessman Khalid Yamadaev and banker Abubakar Arsamakov–have apparently decided not to run.

“It is not excluded that the Kremlin is actually preparing ‘reserve’ scenarios,” concluded Falyakhov and Reut. “But for the present, according to the sources of Gazeta in the presidential administration, Kadyrov remains ‘candidate number one.’ It is not excluded that even indirect support of other candidates is necessary to Moscow precisely in order to keep better control of Kadyrov.”