Chechnya’s special election to fill the pro-Moscow administration’s newly vacant presidency is now set for September 5, and the Putin administration is weighing its options. According to an analysis by Zoya Svetova in the May 17 issue of Russky Kurier, the Kremlin has yet to decide whom it wants to be the winner in an election which will undoubtedly be as rigged as the one last fall that ostensibly legitimized the late Akhmad Kadyrov.
Kadyrov’s son Ramzan met with Vladimir Putin three times last week – but, on the other hand, Putin on May 11 appointed another potential candidate as deputy to the presidential representative for the Southern Federal District, which includes the Northern Caucasus. That man, Oleg Zhidkov, also reportedly accompanied Putin when the latter visited Chechnya last week. To Russia’s security services, he would be an attractive candidate, for the same reason that he would not be welcome to most Chechens, including the Kadyrov clan: He is an ethnic Russian who has served in Putin’s favorite agency, the KGB.
Further evidence that influential forces within the Putin administration would favor Zhidkov or a similar candidate came in a list of criteria published on May 14 by the Kremlin-controlled Strana.ru website. According to these criteria, Akhmad Kadyrov’s successor should be someone who is absolutely trusted by the federal center, including the federal military and security agencies; second, he should be someone who was born in Chechnya or who has lived there for a substantial part of his life; third, he should not be offensive to the majority of Chechnya’s teips; and fourth, he must have substantial administrative and financial experience so that he will not be cheated by his own subordinates. Those are not the criteria which one would list if one were trying to advance Ramzan’s cause: He would manifestly fail both the third and the fourth of these criteria.
Strana.ru suggested that Chechnya’s former minister of the press Bislan Gantemirov would fail the third criterion, as would “Moscow Chechens” such as Malik Saidullaev or Ruslan Khasbulatov (both of whom would also fail the second). Nearly all prominent Chechens within Chechnya would fail the first criterion. The well-connected website went on to opine that “Zhidkov’s biography fits all four criteria better than anyone’s.”
A native of Grozny, Zhidkov studied both at Chechen-Ingush University and at a KGB training center in Minsk. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union he was head of the Vedeno section of the KGB in southern Chechnya. In 1991, he moved to Moscow, where he advised the federal trade ministry on security issues. From 2001 to 2003 he served as mayor of Grozny in the pro-Moscow administration until the elder Kadyrov succeeded in squeezing him out, as the late Chechen president tried to do (and usually succeeded) with all independent-minded officials. Thus Zhidkov has rich experience, plus his own extensive network of contacts, both in Moscow and in Chechnya.
A piquant detail noted by Stran.ru: According to the website’s sources, during Zhidkov’s term as mayor, the Federal Security Service (FSB) promoted him from colonel to general.
Tantalizingly, Chechnya’s Duma representative, Ruslan Yamadaev, refused to exclude the possibility of a Zhidkov presidency in an interview with the Gazeta.ru website published on May 14. Yamadaev said that the KGB officer has “normal relations” with the Chechen populace. The influential Yamadaev family is clearly not ready simply to fall into line behind Ramzan; in fact, Ruslan Yamadaev himself is seen by some as a possible candidate. According to a May 17 article for the Grani.ru website by Andrei Smirnov, Yamadaev’s candidacy is being actively promoted by some of his colleagues in the leadership of the powerful, pro-Putin United Russia party.
The most obvious barrier to Ramzan Kadyrov’s path into his late father’s post is the fact that he is younger than the minimum age of 30 stipulated by Chechnya’s constitution. According to Russky Kurier’s Svetova, one of the main goals of Ramzan Kadyrov’s flight to Moscow late last week was to feel out the Kremlin’s willingness to amend the constitution so as to remove that barrier. Accompanying Kadyrov on that trip were acting president Sergei Abramov and Taus Dzhabrailov, the new head of the republic’s State Council, as well as several cabinet ministers. This suggests that the young Kadyrov has managed to keep his father’s team united in support of his own ambitions. His allies even engineered a formal appeal to Putin from Dzhabrailov’s State Council, asking him on May 13 to “take all measures to remove the obstacles to the registration of Ramzan Kadyrov as a candidate.”
But according to Svetova’s sources, the Kremlin told the visitors from Grozny that it is not willing to change the constitution. “That would require a new [constitutional] referendum,” she wrote, “which would put Moscow in a ridiculous position in the eyes of the whole world. So nothing remained for Ramzan Kadyrov but to announce that he is declining to take part in the election – but this does not at all mean that he is declining to run the republic.” (The Kremlin has now locked in this behind-the-scenes decision: Aleksandr Veshnyakov, head of the federal election commission, publicly announced on Friday that Ramzan is ineligible to run.)
Nevertheless, despite this failure by Ramzan and his allies to get him quickly designated as Moscow’s choice to be his father’s successor, he has been consolidating his position as the real leader of Chechnya, with Sergei Abramov as his figurehead. Putin’s adviser Aslambek Aslakhanov was quoted by Andrei Riskin in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on May 17 as stating flatly that “at present Chechnya is de facto being run by Ramzan Kadyrov.” Riskin’s article also noted that Ramzan has won the public support of Chechnya’s leading Islamic clergy – and, not surprisingly, of the republic’s “presidential security service” which has long been his power base.
Significantly, that force has now been officially designated as part of the pro-Moscow administration’s police – and it has been made clear that Ramzan will continue to be its head even though he is now Abramov’s vice-premier. On May 13, the Kadyrovites put on a show of strength in their eastern Chechen stronghold of Tsentoroy, in the form of a military parade by Ramzan’s “security service.” Among the speakers was Abramov, who thus confirmed the widely held view that he will function essentially as a figurehead. Magomed Khambiev, former defense minister for the underground separatist government, also expressed his public support for the young Kadyrov; whatever his true feelings might be about this young man who ordered the kidnapping and torture of his relatives, he was prudent enough not to express them.
Thus it seems increasingly unlikely that anyone could dislodge Ramzan from power without a bloody fight. In fact, there have already been scattered outbursts of violence pitting federal security forces against the distrusted Kadyrovites. According to a May 17 Grani.ru article, Russian forces in Grozny on May 12 carried out “a noisy special operation to seize five members of [Ramzan’s] security service, with gunfire and the breaking down of apartment doors.”
The fall-back scenario for the Kadyrovites will now be to have a “reliable” person elected as president, for Ramzan himself to serve as prime minister, and for the new president to resign as soon as Ramzan is old enough to take his place. Such a stand-in president, according to Svetova’s sources, might be Taus Dzhabrailov.
But even under that scenario, the Kremlin’s influence within Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration is likely to increase in the near future. As Nabi Abdullaev wrote for Transitions Online on May 13: “Over the next four months, there will be virtually nothing to prevent the Kremlin from staffing Chechnya’s political structures with its agents of influence. That would have been impossible under Akhmad Kadyrov, who rigorously purged his staff of Moscow’s appointees.”
Publicly positioning himself against Ramzan was the influential ultra-nationalist member of the federal Duma, Dmitri Rogozin. Targeting a key element in Ramzan’s power structure, Rogozin told a May 14 talk show on the NTV television network that the amnesty which has helped fill the ranks of the Kadyrov clan’s private army should be halted. “If a man has shot at us with a sub-machine-gun in his hands,” said Rogozin, “if he has shot at the Chechen administration, at the opposition, at civilians or at our federal forces, he should be banned from any profession which involves the bearing of arms. He has no right to work in the police or the special services…”