Overview What changes will Ramzan Kadyrov’s death bring?

Andres Herkel
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Face masks depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, owner of private military company Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin, centre, and Chechnya's regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, left, are displayed among others for sale at a souvenir shop in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, June 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)  XDL101
Face masks depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, owner of private military company Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin, centre, and Chechnya's regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, left, are displayed among others for sale at a souvenir shop in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, June 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky) XDL101 Photo: Dmitri Lovetsky

Chechnya's brutal autocrat Ramzan Kadyrov is most likely indeed gravely ill. What changes could his departure bring to Chechnya and Russia?

The brutal autocrat is preparing for death, and there is no longer any doubt about it. How else can one explain the rapid distribution of positions to his children and relatives? Kadyrov is in a hurry because his illness is severe, and he believes his clan must remain in power.

However, there is a problem. While he can appoint his 18-year-old son as a minister, making him president immediately would be an exaggeration even in Chechnya. Kadyrov himself, gravely ill, is only 47 years old.

Rumors of his imminent death peaked last September when news spread that Kadyrov's kidneys had failed and he was in a coma. Attempts to dispel these rumors with upbeat video recordings largely failed. Although Kadyrov is still alive as of today, he often misses significant events, and when he does attend, he appears visibly unwell.

Last fall, two men were primarily considered his successors: Adam Delimkhanov, aged 54, and Magomed Daudov, aged 44. Now, there is increasing talk about Apti Alaudinov, aged 50, who seems to have become the Kremlin's favorite. In short, all three are directly and closely connected to Kadyrov's crimes.

Apti Alaudinov speaking at a United Russia congress in Moscow on December 17, 2023. Photo: Sergei Guneyev / Sputnik / Scanpix.
Apti Alaudinov speaking at a United Russia congress in Moscow on December 17, 2023. Photo: Sergei Guneyev / Sputnik / Scanpix. Photo: IMAGO/Sergey Guneev/IMAGO/SNA

Kadyrov's relationship with this trio has been well summarized by Novaya Gazeta Europe. If someone needs to be eliminated in eastern Chechnya, Daudov handles it. In the west, it’s Alaudinov’s territory, and for tasks outside Chechnya but within Russia, Delimkhanov, who oversees criminals, gets it done. Delimkhanov is also a member of the Russian State Duma.

Kadyrov has reportedly said that if there are blood feuds, the relatives of killed Chechens should not turn to his clan but direct their demands to the home communities of the killers. "I tell them to go to Geldagen or Sadjin-Kotar," Kadyrov was quoted by Novaya Gazeta Europe, referring to Daudov’s and Alaudinov’s hometowns.

This attitude likely explains why Kadyrov is rapidly consolidating his clan’s positions.

After Alaudinov, who led the SOBR "Akhmat" unit in the war against Ukraine, emerged as a member of Vladimir Putin's support group, photos promoting unity with Kadyrov started appearing. This was unexpected since Alaudinov was not previously in Kadyrov’s close circle. Delimkhanov, a warrior once considered the top contender for succession, has been increasingly sidelined.

Daudov was made prime minister from the post of chairman of the parliament, indicating that Kadyrov sees him as an immediate successor. Upon the president's death, the prime minister takes over. Daudov's advantage is that he lacks a strong clan behind him, making him relatively safe for Kadyrov's relatives. Chechen opposition activist Musa Lomayev views him as a transitional figure who, if he gains power, would only do so temporarily. Outside Chechnya, Daudov has no influence (see interviews by RFE/RL and Khodorkovsky LIVE).

Chechens remain humble and respectful towards Kadyrov’s relatives only as long as Kadyrov is alive.

The next Chechen leader is unlikely to receive the same special status from Russia that Kadyrov enjoyed. However, Chechnya's current power structure is the creation of Vladimir Putin, and its collapse would be dangerous for them. Notably, Putin's interests in Chechnya's succession do not align with those of Kadyrov. Simply put, Putin needs Chechnya’s submission through violence, which does not necessarily have to be executed by Kadyrov’s clan.

Lomayev believes that Chechens will remain humble and respectful towards the rewarded and promoted relatives of Kadyrov only as long as Kadyrov is alive. Once he is gone, their status will change. Lomayev also doubts that anyone in Chechnya's current leadership could become independent from the Kremlin, as all the money comes from there, and the local violence apparatus is part of Russia’s. He considers it possible that a "Russian general" might be appointed to lead Chechnya next.

Currently, we can only speculate about what might have happened if Prigozhin’s so-called rebellion had progressed further last year and if Kadyrov had already disappeared from the scene. But that did not happen, and the Kremlin had time to prepare for a post-Kadyrov era. Kadyrov's sudden death would have been a shock, but his slow demise may not contribute equally to Russia’s disintegration.

Zakayev: As long as Kadyrov is alive, he can be charged with crimes against humanity and treason.

Akhmed Zakayev, the 65-year-old exiled leader of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from the time of Dzhokhar Dudayev, does not want to discuss Kadyrov's death at all. He even believes that a dying but living Kadyrov is much better in the current situation than a dead one.

A replacement for a dead Kadyrov could be someone who is not as unequivocally a criminal in the eyes of the world. Zakayev's argument in an interview with Unian is that as long as Kadyrov is alive, he can be charged with crimes against humanity and treason. His looted assets can also be reclaimed. Kadyrov has been subjected to various sanctions, his crimes and human rights violations have been documented, and his actions condemned internationally.

Akhmed Zakayev. Photo: Kacper Pempel / REUTERS
Akhmed Zakayev. Photo: Kacper Pempel / REUTERS Photo: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS

Zakayev refers to the Ukrainian parliament’s (Verkhovna Rada) decision from October 18, 2022, which names Chechnya as a "temporarily occupied territory." He believes that a tribunal against Kadyrov can only happen with the help of a successful Ukraine, drawing in international organizations that have already condemned Kadyrov’s actions. This includes the European Parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and various UN human rights reports.

Only a tribunal would open the possibility to truly change Chechnya, while Kadyrov’s death would make this much harder to achieve, says Zakayev, who has led the government-in-exile from London since 2002. It is fitting to end with a note that the British intelligence agency MI5 warned of Kadyrov's order to assassinate Zakayev as early as in 2012.

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