Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 5

An article published in the January 31 edition of Kommersant has triggered speculation that Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov is poised to replace Sergei Abramov as Chechnya’s prime minister. Citing unnamed sources in Grozny, the newspaper reported that Abramov, who is in Moscow recovering from serious injuries sustained in a car crash near the Russian capital last November (see Chechnya Weekly, November 23, 2005), would not return to his post in Grozny and that Ramzan Kadyrov would take over as prime minister. “This way, the cadre principle that Moscow has strictly followed until now—that the Chechen government must be headed by a Russian—will be violated,” Kommersant wrote. “The appointment of Kadyrov as premier will be an official recognition of his absolute power in the republic. Observers are certain that Ramzan will not sit in the premiership too long and in the autumn will change places to occupy the seat of the Chechen president.” As the newspaper noted, Kadyrov will turn 30 on October 5 of this year—the earliest age at which the Chechen constitution would allow him to assume the republican presidency.

Abramov himself told Kommersant it would be inappropriate to comment on the rumors. “I will gladly speak on this subject on the first day when, having completed my treatment, I take up my duties as head of the Chechen government,” he said. Yet an unnamed “highly placed source” in Grozny told the paper that two candidates are being considered to replace Abramov: Kadyrov, who is currently serving as acting prime minister in Abramov’s absence; and Oleg Zhidkov, chief federal inspector for Chechnya. Zhidkov, however, denied the rumor, telling Kommersant it would be logical for Kadyrov to take over as prime minister were Abramov unable to return: “Why not? He will at least be able to force his apparatus to work, and for the situation in Chechnya that is very important.” The newspaper quoted another unnamed source as saying that Abramov formally vacating his post would in no way change the “pinnacle of power” in the republic, but rather simply confirm the existing status quo—i.e., that Abramov and Chechen President Alu Alkhanov are nominal figures, with all real power in Kadyrov’s hands. Another “informed federal official” told Kommersant that the Kremlin would not foist a prime minister from the outside on Kadyrov. “It’s all the same to Moscow,” the source said. “The elections went off successfully, the parliament is functioning, there is no war as such, [and] factors of stability are present.”

Just last month, Sergei Abramov was insisting that he would soon resume prime ministerial duties. “Doctors are advising me against working too much at the moment, but I could return to work in late January or early February,” RIA Novosti quoted him as saying on January 11. According to the news agency, Abramov said the Chechen government in 2006 would focus on rebuilding Grozny—which, he said, would essentially have to be totally rebuilt. Kommersant, however, cited what could end up being the decisive factor in convincing him not to return to his duties: the fact that “sooner or later” the issue of the embezzlement of federal funds in Chechnya will come up, and that the theft might be pinned on him. “Ninety-eight billion rubles [approximately $3.48 billion at the current exchange rate] have been invested in the republic since 2000,” an official told the newspaper. “They should be evident. But only the results of private investment—gas stations, stores, and so on—are evident. These are mainly Ramzan’s personal investments.”

According to Kommersant, the newly-elected Chechen parliament is “absolutely loyal” to Ramzan Kadyrov, as is the local branch of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, and only the opinions of “two people in Moscow”—President Vladimir Putin and deputy Kremlin administration chief Vladislav Surkov—matter to him. Sources told the paper they were certain Putin would confirm Kadyrov as president after he reached his 30th birthday. “Ramzan is tired of pretending that everything does not depend upon him,” one of the newspaper’s sources told it.

At the same time, Kommersant cited a source as indicating that public opinion in Chechnya has changed over the last two years, with the popularity of the Kadyrov clan sinking as its power grows and that Ramzan Kadyrov is “strongly disliked.” Still, Sergei Khaikin, director of the Institute of Social Marketing, told the paper that all leaders in Chechnya registered low popularity ratings and that Kadyrov “by definition” has support among a certain sector of Chechen society. Meanwhile, the paper added, Moscow is closing its eyes to Kadyrov’s growing power while the levers of federal control in the republic are weakening. “The danger is that a strengthened Kadyrov will return to Chechnya that which Moscow has actively fought against: the idea of polygamy, a [subjugated] role for women, Sharia law and so on,” an “informed official” told Kommersant (see Chechnya Weekly, January 19).

Interestingly, on February 1, the day after the Kommersant article was published, Itar-Tass published a piece quoting Institute of Social Marketing Director Sergei Khaikin as saying that “the results of the latest sociological poll of 1,000 residents of Chechnya in 75 populated localities of the republic” found that 67 percent of Chechnya’s residents “have confidence” in Ramzan Kadyrov. “Khaikin said residents of the republic had thus paid tribute to Kadyrov’s role in solving complex problems in the republic’s life—restoration of its social and economic sphere, ensuring public security and law and order in Chechnya,” the state news agency reported, adding that Kadyrov “also oversees the payment of compensations to residents for the housing and property they lost during the military operations.”

The publication of the Kommersant article triggered comments from a variety of observers. In an interview with the website, Aleksandr Shatilov, head of the analytical department of the Center for Current Politics, a Moscow-based think-tank, was asked whether there was any “real alternative” to Kadyrov for the post of republican prime minister, such as chief Chechen inspector Oleg Zhidkov. Shatilov responded: “An active game is going on at the federal level around the figure of Ramzan Kadyrov. One part of the presidential administration (the so-called ‘Old Moscow’ part) favors and is promoting his candidacy. As for the siloviki, they, on the contrary, view him with a certain suspicion, insofar as they consider him a latent separatist and fear giving him the full spectrum of powers. All the more so given that Kadyrov has indeed recently been rather strongly defending the position of the Chechen administration in terms of extending the scope of [its] administrative prerogatives. That is why the siloviki are lobbying an alternative candidacy. The way they argue this is that according to the existing tradition, the presidential post in Chechnya should be filled by an ethnic Chechen, but the premier (as a kind of counterweight) should be a Russian.” on January 31 also quoted Gennady Gudkov, vice-chairman of the State Duma’s Defense Committee and a member of the State Duma’s United Russia faction, as saying: “Information has appeared in certain media that Ramzan Kadyrov might become president of the Chechen Republic as soon as this autumn. However, in my view, he already is, de facto. With all due respect to Alu Alkhanov, Ramzan Kadyrov is in reality the first person in Chechnya, and the Russian people are convinced of this…although, of course, Alu Alkhanov is the legally elected president. An ambiguous situation has been created, which, of course, is not completely correct, therefore I believe this question must somehow be resolved…How will the federal center avert the threat of Chechnya’s excessive Islamicization, considering the obvious existence of such a tendency on Kadyrov’s part? The Kremlin today has a limited set of options for influencing the situation. In reality, despite the fact that elections took place in the Chechen Republic and that political parties are represented in the parliament, we all really understand that power is in the hands of the Kadyrov clan. Therefore I think that it will be necessary to come to an understanding with Kadyrov and define the rules of the game. If he accepts them, then these will probably be the main levers for avoiding the Chechen Republic’s Islamicization.”

Ramzan Kadyrov, meanwhile, denied the reports that he would replace Sergei Abramov as Chechen prime minister. “Chairman of the government Sergei Abramov will take up the execution of his direct duties after completing his course of treatment and rehabilitation,” RIA Novosti on January 31 quoted Kadyrov as telling journalists in Grozny. “I am carrying out the duties of the head of government in accordance with the Chechen constitution, did not and do not aspire to the post of premier, and I consider the clamor surrounding this question to be discourteous and unethical. Certain media lately have been spreading rumors, based on conjectures and street gossip, that Abramov will not return to Grozny and that I plan to fill his post. I believe that behind them [these media reports] stand forces that are jealous over the positive changes taking place in Chechnya, that want to see it remain a ‘hot region,’ a hotbed of tension, but those days are gone and will never come back again in Chechen history.” Kadyrov said he had the “concrete and exceptionally important tasks” of resolving the issues of security and returning members of the “illegal armed formations” to peaceful life. “How successfully they [these tasks] are being realized can be judged by what kind of atmosphere there has been in the Chechen Republic recently,” Kadyrov said. “The Chechen leadership is a solid team…formed in the most difficult period in the Chechen Republic’s history, and Abramov is one of the key figures on this team, knows his work, is master of the situation and is not planning to leave Chechnya without having realized many important plans. I am stating responsibly that no one in Chechnya is fighting either for the premier’s seat or the president’s seat. We clearly recognize that Chechnya needs stability, revival [and] accord, and any attempts to infringe on these values will be stopped.”

The website on February 1 quoted Kadyrov as saying that economic tasks would now be Chechnya’s main priority. “This speaks to the serious achievements in stabilizing the situation in the republic,” he said. “I consider this to be a success of our entire law enforcement system—not only republican, but federal.”