On May 21, mainstream Russian news agencies broke the story of the hospitalization of Chechnya’s strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov. These media outlet’s sources revealed that Kadyrov was flown from Grozny to Moscow on suspicion of his having contracted the novel coronavirus responsible for causing COVID-19. They asserted that the Chechen governor was in a “stable state,” but if Kadyrov had to be taken to Moscow for treatment, it meant he was likely in a life-threatening condition (Interfax, May 21). The next day, on May 22, the speaker of the Chechen parliament, Magomed Daudov, called information about republican governor’s illness only “gossip” and urged his audience not to worry about Kadyrov’s health (TASS, May 22). The intrigue did not end there. On the same day, the Russian State Duma deputy from Chechnya and a close associate of Kadyrov’s, Adam Delimkhanov, said that a large number of people are concerned about the head of Chechnya and wished him a quick recovery from his illness (TASS, May 22). Official Chechen websites, nonetheless, published a video, on May 23, with Ramzan Kadyrov’s greeting to Muslims concerning the Eid al-Fitr holiday (Chechnya Segodnya, May 23). The low-quality video appears to have been filmed at Kadyrov’s official residence, but he himself does not actually appear in it. The voice-over on the recording also does not sound unequivocally like the Chechen leader’s (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 24). This is quite unlike the governor of Chechnya, whose media appearances are usually carefully choreographed. In the past day, Kadyrov appeared in multiple media forums, claiming, with a certain level of ambiguity, that the rumors of his hospitalization were untrue (Meduza, The Moscow Times, May 27).
Shortly before his presumed hospitalization in Moscow, Kadyrov openly demanded the dismissal of medical workers at the Gudermes hospital who had disseminated reports about the lack of protective equipment at the facility. The medics complained they lacked the means to receive and treat patients with the novel coronavirus and revealed that one of their colleagues had died of the disease. Kadyrov stated that the republic had no shortages of resources to treat the sick (TASS, May 18). Yet after his own apparent removal to Moscow, Chechnya’s governor implicitly signaled that the republic lacks facilities for treatment of COVID-19. Previously, observers pointed out inconsistencies with pandemic-related restrictions imposed by the Chechen government. While ordinary citizens were severely punished and sometimes even beaten by the local police for breaking the rules, Chechen officials continued to congregate in large groups and ignore social distancing. The authorities appeared to see the coronavirus and the related restrictions as something that applies only to their subordinate population (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 6).
Chechnya’s strongman is notorious for presiding over rampant human rights abuses. Ramzan succeeded his father, Ahmad Kadyrov, who was the mufti of the quasi-independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Kadyrov senior defected to the Russian side during the second Russian-Chechen war and became the first pro-Moscow governor of Chechnya. In 2004, Ahmad Kadyrov was assassinated. After several years of a tug-of-war over succession, Vladimir Putin of Russia appointed the former mufti’s son, Ramzan, to lead the republic. With the full support of the central Russian government, the new governor of Chechnya ruthlessly uprooted the remaining rebel forces who had sought independence for the republic.
The younger Kadyrov (now 43) is in many ways a controversial figure. Russian liberals dislike him for his role in rampant human rights abuses but often overlook his Moscow backers. Russian nationalists dislike him for assuming too much power over Chechnya, which renders the republic almost an associate member of the Russian Federation. Kadyrov has de facto created his own armed forces, which are paid for by Moscow. Kadyrov’s political survival appears to be conditional on Putin’s continued personal support. The rationale for backing Kadyrov’s rule is usually explained as a necessary condition for keeping Chechnya pacified (and under the control of Moscow).
Kadyrov’s latest temporary disappearance from the political scene in Chechnya (especially if it happens again soon, should Kadyrov’s health deteriorate yet again) may seriously reshape the situation in the republic, the North Caucasus, and even the Russian Federation. Rumors about Kadyrov’s possible removal have circulated for several years already. Most recently, they reemerged in January 2020, when Moscow reportedly offered Chechnya’s governor the position of special representative for the Middle East. Kadyrov himself denied such an offer had ever been extended to him (Argumenty Nedeli, January 16). Disconnecting Chechnya’s strongman from his powerbase would turn him into a regular bureaucrat who can later be easily dismissed. This is well understood by both Kadyrov and his opponents. Despite strong denials earlier this year of leaving the republic, the Chechen head still suggested that if he were asked to step down, he would prefer to lead the Council of Veterans in his republic.
Kadyrov’s possible illness provides Moscow with a trump card to play, if it chooses. In the middle of the current economic and health crises, when Russian federal authorities are forced to ease their grip on the regions (see EDM, March 18, April 2, 6, 30, May 6), the Kremlin might be especially keen on removing governors who may cause trouble. Kadyrov is one of the most independent political figures in Russia due to the direct support he receives from Putin, the autonomous armed forces loyal to him personally, and his ties to various Middle Eastern Muslim-majority countries. A destabilization of the republic is among the potential risks; but in the end, Vladimir Putin will decide Ramzan Kadyrov’s fate in accordance with his own interests. In the current environment of pandemic and economic crisis, the removal of Chechnya’s ruler would hardly impress Russians or help sustain Putin’s plummeting popular support. However, it might pave the way for a further weakening of the role of ethnic republics in the Russian Federation—which is already advocated by many Russians. Moscow may, therefore, still decide to remove Kadyrov in the near future, especially if his health takes a turn for the worse and he has to return to the capital for further emergency treatment.