Akhmad Kadyrov’s least surprising announcement of recent months was the one that finally came last week: He is now officially in the running to become president of Chechnya. It was also no surprise that Kadyrov used his official registration as a show of strength. Accompanying him to the election commission office were several prominent supporters, including not only a leading Muslim cleric but also the republic’s prime minister, Anatoly Popov, and the leader of the Chechen branch of the pro-Putin United Russia party. The presence of the last two, of course, is yet another signal that Kadyrov has the Kremlin’s support–and that he understands that this support is what really counts, outweighing the lack of enthusiasm for Putin or Popov among Chechnya’s rank and file voters.
Contrary to expectations that he himself had encouraged, Kadyrov chose to register as an independent candidate rather than as the United Russia party’s official nominee. As Andrei Riskin pointed out in an August 1 article in Nezavisimaya gazeta, Kadyrov had earlier sent United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov (who is also the federal minister of the interior) a written request for the party’s support. On July 29 Gryzlov announced that the party’s general council would decide that week whom to support, but Kadyrov for some reason decided to announce his independent candidacy before the council’s scheduled meeting. “Perhaps,” suggested Riskin, “he was afraid that the council might ax his candidacy. It is no secret that after the stunning new opinion polls revealing Kadyrov’s extremely low popularity in Chechnya, the United Russia party’s leaders have changed their view of him. Also, some of the United Russia people sympathize with their fellow party member, Duma deputy Aslambek Aslakhanov.” But Riskin also acknowledged that it may be Kadyrov who is worried about United Russia’s unpopularity rather than the reverse: “In Chechnya, the image of a pro-Kremlin party is negative.”
Ruslan Khasbulatov, former speaker of the Russian parliament and now an economics professor in Moscow, announced unexpectedly on July 31 that he too would enter the presidential race. Khasbulatov thus becomes the only candidate who publicly supports–or at least supported until recently–Chechnya’s independence from Russia. His decision to run came as a major disappointment to separatist leaders, who fear that it will help create an appearance of legitimacy both for the election and for the new constitution under which it will be held. Khasbulatov has been one of the harshest critics both of that constitution and of the rigged procedures by which it was adopted in a March referendum. These are procedures that most expect will be repeated in the presidential election.
Khasbulatov said that he had a program of his own for reaching a settlement in Chechnya–“but I will announce it only after I take office.” He failed even to provide any hints as to how this program would or would not differ from the “Liechtenstein plan” that he endorsed a year ago (see Chechnya Weekly, September 9, 2002). As the website Gzt.ru observed, Khasbulatov’s position is unclear: “One cannot understand whether or not in the final analysis Chechnya is to be part of Russia.”
Aslambek Aslakhanov may not decide to run, but by criticizing Kadyrov publicly he has shown that he remains a force to be reckoned with and that the acting president cannot take his support for granted. Gazeta.ru quoted him on August 4 as charging that Kadyrov has improperly used his administrative position to advance his own electoral interests. According to Nezavisimaya gazeta, Aslakhanov has called for the election to be postponed, sarcastically noting that the scheduled election day of October 5 coincides with the birthday of Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan.
Tensions are mounting between Kadyrov’s supporters and those of Moscow businessman Malik Saidullaev; the latter’s bodyguards, according to Gazeta.ru, recently clashed with Kadyrov’s gunmen at a checkpoint in Chechnya in a squabble so heated that it nearly turned into a gunfight. On August 4 Saidullaev stole a march on Kadyrov by personally visiting the mass demonstration at Samashki, where participants demanded more effective government action against the kidnappings of Chechen civilians. In a speech to the protestors Saidullaev charged that the republic’s “law-enforcement agencies are fighting crime only weakly.”
Other candidates so far announced include Nikolai Paizulaev, poet; Said-Khamzat Gairbekov, resident of Astrakhan; Avkhad Khachukaev, instructor at Grozny University; Zaindi Mavlatov, military pensioner; and Colonel Said-Selim Tsuev of the military command in Chechnya.