Power Brokers Ponder Whom To Back For Chechen President

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 23

Gross manipulation of elections is easy in a completely totalitarian state, but can have self-defeating results in a semi-totalitarian one. The Kremlin’s interference in last autumn’s presidential election for the pro-Moscow Chechen administration was so heavy-handed that most of the credible candidates have so far chosen to stay out of the current special-election campaign. As Andrei Riskin observed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on June 7, “the ‘boom’ expected by analysts has not appeared.”

As of June 3, only three obscure candidates had officially filed documents with election officials, and one of them had soon withdrawn. On June 2, Sergei Abramov, the feeble and unimpressive “acting president,” announced, as expected, that he too would not be a candidate.

On June 3, a far more serious contender announced his candidacy: Malik Saidullaev, the well-connected businessman and leader of the Chechen community in Moscow who ran against Kadyrov last fall but was forced out by a suspect court ruling before election day. Opinion polls at the time showed that he would have defeated Kadyrov by a wide margin in a truly free and fair election. Instead of trying to collect signatures on a nominating petition from registered voters—who might suffer pressures or reprisals from the Kadyrov clan, and whose signatures might simply be ruled invalid as they were last fall—Saidullaev chose the alternative of paying a filing fee of 4.9 million rubles (about US$170,000).

As Riskin observed, the remaining potential candidates were still awaiting a signal from the Kremlin as of June 7. In his judgment, as of that date the Kremlin had still not definitively decided “on whom to place its stake.”

As a harsh, long-time critic of Akhmad Kadyrov, Riskin may be speaking more from hope than from certain knowledge in stating that the long delay is due to the Kremlin’s reluctance to launch a “Kadyrov-2” scenario. The Nezavisimaya Gazeta correspondent is correct in noting that Akhmad Kadyrov failed to bring peace and economic revival to the republic—and also that son and political heir Ramzan Kadyrov lacks Akhmad’s political weight and skills. “If the Kadyrov-1 scenario was a tragedy,” Riskin wrote, “then a Kadyrov-2 scenario would inevitably degenerate into a farce.” But despite the journalist’s hopes, it remains far from clear that the Kremlin has fully absorbed these realities to the point of making fundamental changes in its failed policies.

It may be a sign of behind-the-scenes agreements within each of two major factions that at this point only one candidate is being prominently mentioned from each of those factions. The first faction is the “Moscow Chechens,” whose candidate at this point would appear to be Saidullaev. (Though he is a native of the Urus-Martan district southwest of Grozny and was educated at the Chechen-Ingush Republic’s Tolstoy University, Saidullaev is prominent specifically as a pillar of the Chechen diaspora in the Russian capital. In 1991 he moved from Grozny to Moscow, where he founded the super-successful firm “Russkoe Loto.”) The second faction is made up of the “siloviki” of Russia’s army and secret-police establishment, who are profoundly nationalistic and imperialistic, and distrustful of any ethnic Chechens save those who are thoroughly indoctrinated and assimilated colleagues of that establishment’s own institutions. For the current race, this faction seems to have settled on Alu Alkhanov, who during the last few weeks has been mentioned and promoted far more often than any other potential candidate from the “siloviki.” According to an article published in Kommersant on June 2, Alkhanov met with Putin in the Kremlin in late May and reportedly won the latter’s support.

Contrary to Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s Riskin, some are already placing their bets on Alkhanov to be the Kremlin’s pick—though at the same time hedging those bets. If one reads closely the article by Rustem Falyakhov and Vladimir Barinov published by Gzt.ru on June 3, it is clear that they are less than 100 percent confident of their prediction. According to the two journalists, their sources in the federal Interior Ministry have told them that Alkhanov “is going to be candidate number one.” One possible scenario is that both he and Ruslan Yamadaev will mount presidential campaigns, with the Kremlin making clear its preference for Alkhanov only at “the last minute”—at which point Yamadaev might withdraw from the race.

Though Alkhanov himself has so far held back from overtly seeking the Chechen presidency, his supporters mounted what amounted to a “draft Alkhanov” meeting on June 2 in the north-Chechen village of Meken-Yurt. But they failed to follow up with what apparently was intended to be a more aggressive show of strength on the following day in Grozny. According to Gzt.ru, about 500 people from all over Chechnya gathered on that occasion, prepared to announce their support of Alkhanov. Significantly, this campaign rally was organized by the pro-Moscow administration of Chechnya. One of its organizers told Gzt.ru that originally the plan was to use the rally as a springboard for creating an “initiative group” for nominating Alkhanov. But the gathering ended in an anti-climax, with the participants adopting a bland resolution calling for “continuation of the course which was begun by Kadyrov.” Rather than endorsing any specific candidate by name, they simply urged that there be “a single candidate.”

Alkhanov’s career is such as to have earned him powerful allies both in Moscow and in Grozny. As Akhmad Kadyrov’s choice to head the pro-Moscow administration’s Interior Ministry, he is a serious claimant to the loyalties of the “Kadyrov team,” which would like to see as much continuity as possible in personnel and policies. But precisely because he has spent his whole adult life in the Soviet and Russian security apparatus—including the years of the first Chechen war, when, unlike the Kadyrov family, he fought on the pro-federal side—he is on better terms with Moscow’s “siloviki” than most other high-ranking Kadyrov appointees. One point in his record that the “siloviki” surely do not like is that he has actively supported Kadyrov family’s tactic of recruiting newly surrendered separatist guerrillas into the ranks of the pro-Moscow administration’s police.

Said-Selim Peshkhoev, the veteran Federal Security Service (FSB) officer and current deputy to President Putin’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, has, according to a June 4 article on the Politcom.ru website, been a strong opponent of that tactic. However, for that very reason, he may no longer be viable as a presidential candidate now that it has become crucial to keep the distrustful ex-guerrillas from re-defecting back to the separatists. In an interview with Kommersant published on May 24, Peshkhoev even suggested that it may have been some of these ex-guerrillas who planted the bomb in Grozny’s Dinamo stadium that killed Akhmad Kadyrov earlier last month.

Having received his higher education in two different Russian police academies, Alkhanov held various interior-ministry posts in the North Caucasus, including Chechnya, in the 1980s and 1990s. During the republic’s brief period of de facto independence under President Aslan Maskhadov, Alkhanov was a police bureaucrat in southern Russia’s Rostov Oblast. He returned to Chechnya after the elder Kadyrov’s rise to power. He holds the rank of major-general.

Another Kadyrov loyalist who might be able to win the Kremlin’s backing is Ruslan Yamadaev. He has the support, according to Gzt.ru, of some of the republic’s cabinet ministers and heads of local district administrations. His allies have already collected 27,000 signatures in support of his candidacy. Interestingly, they have sent these signatures not to the official election authorities but to the headquarters of the pro-Putin United Russia party, which in today’s top-down Russian political system is the only party that now really matters.

The powerful Yamadaev family fought on the separatist side in the first Chechen war, but later defected to the federal side and brought with them the important prize of their stronghold, the town of Gudermes east of Grozny.

The Gzt.ru journalists Falyakhov and Barinov suggested that the Kremlin’s definitive choice would become clear later this month, when the political council of the regional branch of United Russia is scheduled to meet. If that party does not announce its support of Yamadaev, they wrote, “one will then be able to conclude that the stake [of the authorities] will not be placed on him.”

Former Grozny mayor Bislan Gantamirov has continued to make noises about a possible candidacy without actually committing himself. He would seem to have little chance of winning the Kadyrov team’s support: Last year he openly endorsed one of Akhmad Kadyrov’s opponents in the presidential race even though Kadyrov had appointed him as Minister of Information. Gantamirov told Ivan Sukhov in an interview published in Vremya Novostei on June 3 that he would withdraw unless the elections were conducted democratically, without Kremlin interference of the sort that he acknowledged had taken place in the October 2003 election. That, of course, is what anyone in his position wishing to retain even a shred of credibility would be expected to say at this point. He conceded that “consultations” were taking place between the Kremlin and the “Kadyrov team,” but insisted that the Kremlin was also conducting consultations “with almost everyone.” He claimed that it is difficult to know what scenario the Kremlin would choose, “because it seems that the Kremlin itself does not yet know.”