Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 28

Does Malik Saidullaev have a serious chance of becoming president of Chechnya? The Moscow-based Chechen businessman, whose personal fortune is estimated by some at US$500 million, is the first heavyweight candidate to throw his hat into the ring against de facto incumbent Akhmad Kadyrov. (The latter has not yet formally declared his intentions, but everyone is taking it for granted that he will run.) In some ways Saidullaev’s behavior looks less like that of a bona fide candidate than that of a Moscow tycoon engaged in personal self-advertisement–a type familiar in today’s Russia. Even in such a hyper-centralized country, one has to wonder why he chose Moscow as the setting for the press conference announcing his candidacy. Though it will of course be the Putin administration that decides the outcome of the forthcoming rigged election, the Russian president nonetheless wants at least the appearance of a genuine contest, one in which the candidates seem to be wooing voters in Chechnya. Perhaps the Kremlin has encouraged Saidullaev to run precisely in order to reinforce this appearance. In any case, even if Putin’s circle has firmly placed its stake on the republic’s acting president, the presence of a rival candidate gives Moscow more bargaining leverage in its complicated relations with the willful Kadyrov.

Saidullaev’s July 24 announcement was close to an outright declaration that he proposes to buy the electorate. He said that his business contacts both in Russia and abroad would be useful in wooing foreign investors, and that “there are more than enough resources which one can attract into the republic…so that it can make the transition to normal, peaceful functioning.” Without quite saying so directly, Saidullaev also tried to create the impression that he and the Chechen republic’s representative in the federal Duma have quietly agreed to work as allies against Kadyrov: “I have cooperated with Aslambek Aslakhanov for quite a long time….We are friends, with very warm relations, I value him very highly…and no elections can divide us.” He hinted that he, Aslakhanov and other candidates and potential candidates might join forces: “We are not planning to create obstacles for each other…when necessary we shall support each other.” He even said that three or four candidates might agree to make a joint statement abandoning the campaign if it should appear to them that the elections “are not going to be taken seriously and accepted by the world…I am confident that the president [Putin] will do everything to keep himself from being reproached about the elections.”

Meanwhile, the Kremlin took two more steps to signal its support for Kadyrov. First, Boris Gryzlov, head of the pro-Putin Russian Unity party, announced that party’s formal endorsement of the front runner. As commentator Orkhan Dzhemal observed in a July 28 article in Novaya gazeta, “in effect this means that Putin has now publicly and almost officially given his blessing to Kadyrov.” Second, Kadyrov was named to the Russian Federation’s delegation to the United Nations; in Dzhemal’s words, “unconsciously almost every Russian believes that to be a diplomat is a symbol of respectability.”

Also significant was last week’s decision by the Chechen branch of the pro-free market Union of Rightist Forces to back Kadyrov. However, the party’s national leader, Boris Nemtsov, aware of Kadyrov’s low standing among its constituency of pro-reform Russians, claimed that this decision was not supported by the party’s Moscow headquarters.