The leader of a once-rebellious Russian republic has reminded the Kremlin just how much it needs him.
I t might have marked the start of one of the most pivotal moments in Russia’s recent history, were it not for the perplexing unwritten rules dictating political life in the country. Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s brazen leader, unexpectedly announced last weekend that it was time for him to step down.
Interviewed on state-owned Russia 1 TV, Mr. Kadyrov said it was his “dream” to resign. “Once there was a need for people like me to fight, to put things in order. Now we have order and prosperity... and time has come for changes in the Chechen Republic,” he explained.
However, many have been quick to throw water on the prospect of the 41-year-old strongman leaving his post of 10 years any time soon, instead suggesting the announcement was a deliberate ploy to reinforce his position.
Indeed, it is widely believed that Mr. Kadyrov is irreplaceable.
He is seen as exceptionally powerful for a leader of one of Russia’s autonomous regions, thanks to his iron grip on the once-rebellious Chechen Republic and his fierce loyalty to Mr. Putin. The Kremlin has largely turned a blind eye to his wilful use of power in exchange for peace in a region which witnessed two secessionist wars.
The region’s security forces - known as the ‘Kadyrovtsy’ - swear a personal oath of allegiance to Mr. Kadyrov, a former rebel who gets to pick and choose the region’s officials. During his time in power, he has carved out a role as a defender of the Muslim-majority region’s faith and social values.
Some of Mr. Kadyrov’s popularity comes naturally, as his 3.1 million Instagram followers can attest. Yet intimidation is a key pillar of his personal fiefdom, too: offending Ramzan Kadyrov’s name can lead to a public flogging, broadcast on YouTube, and those who fail to turn up to his rallies often face a dressing-down from his enforcers.
This has, at times, complicated the Kremlin’s Faustian calculations. Russia’s security elites are said to have been incensed at Mr. Kadyrov’s alleged responsibility for the 2015 assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was shot metres away from the Kremlin walls.
Exposés of the brutal persecution faced by Chechnya’s gay population, meanwhile, have drawn opprobrium from the international community and liberal Muscovites.
Meanwhile, Chechnya continues to drain Russia’s public purse. Federal subsidies make up 80% of the republic’s budget, and questions over how much (or, indeed, how little) of it ends up being spent in the public interest remain unanswered.
On balance, however, it remains in the Kremlin’s interest to keep Mr. Kadyrov in power, with no plausible alternatives in sight. For the Chechen leader, the proud owner of a private zoo and a $1.4 million Lamborghini Reventón, there is little interest to push the arrangement beyond its limits.
Vladimir Putin could devise a “transition strategy” in Chechnya, says Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, a political analyst, but he “will decide to do so only if Kadyrov becomes too damaging for his reputation.”
Such a scenario seems avoidable in a country where political embarrassments can be easily contained. “State propaganda presents a very whitewashed image of Kadyrov,” Ms. Sokirianskaia told TWW.
‘Only Putin knows’
Nonetheless, the Chechen’s remarks, made at the tail end of a 40-minute interview aired late on a Sunday night, appeared to catch the Kremlin off guard. Russian news agency Interfax cited an unnamed official as saying a resignation would be “strange”.
The Kremlin’s swift rebuttal set the record straight. Government spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the next day that Mr. Kadyrov remains loyal to Mr. Putin and would "work at any position which the country's president has asked him to."
Analysts were quick to suspect a sort of charade common to Russia’s smoke-and-mirrors officialdom. According to Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, Mr. Kadyrov’s announcement amounted to “lip service”, or an attempt to seek affirmation from the Russian president.
The fact that Mr. Kadyrov had in the same announcement affirmed his allegiance to Mr. Putin - calling him his “idol” and saying "I'm ready to die for him. I'm ready to comply with any order" - indicated just how little of the exchange could be taken at face value.
It would not be a first, either. The Chechen leader made similar comments in early 2016, ahead of his re-election to office. Many suspected that he was pushing the Russian leadership to reappoint him, using the airwaves to remind them of his irreplaceability amidst lingering angst in Moscow over the Nemtsov assassination.
Yet with just one year of Mr. Kadyrov’s five-year term having elapsed, analysts have once again been prompted to speculate what he might be hoping to achieve.
Some suggest Chechnya is vying to squeeze more out of the federal budget, as Mr. Putin tightens the belt under difficult economic circumstances. The budget process is nearly finalised, but there is still room to redistribute allocations between regions, political analyst Yekaterina Shulman pointed out to Radio Free Europe.
Mr. Kolesnikov, however, doubts Mr. Kadyrov’s remarks were pegged to anything specific. “The format of the [Russia 1 TV] broadcast implies that it had been prepared long before it was aired,” he told The World Weekly.
A more long-running theme of recent Russian politics is the country’s post-Putin future. The president is almost certain to contest and win the upcoming 2018 election, but many believe he is tiring of the position. “Kadyrov may well be making a statement: ‘Whoever is Russia's next president, he will need me just as much as Putin did’,” Russia expert Mark Galeotti commented on Al Jazeera.
Still, it could take up to six years for Mr. Putin’s successor to emerge. A lot could change in that time. A significant number of Chechens went to fight for Islamic State, for example, and their return following the jihadi group’s recent losses could increase pressure on Mr. Kadyrov’s security regime.
Yet the Russian reaction to Mr. Kadyrov’s ‘resignation’ threat suggests it is a long way off from drawing up a ‘plan B’ for Chechnya, let alone implementing it.
“Where the red line is, only Putin knows,” Mr. Kolesnikov concluded.