With the current term of Ramzan Kadyrov as head of Chechnya scheduled to come to a close in April 2016, the status of Chechnya is once again being called into question.
Minister of internal affairs of the Chechen Republic Ruslan Alkhanov, left, and Chechen Republic President Ramzan Kadyrov during an event in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Photo: RIA Novosti
Ramzan Kadyrov has recently made a series of statements about his stepping down as the head of Chechnya, but what do they really mean? First, on Feb. 23 he claimed that he had no desire to keep his post, and four days later, he confided that he had reached his peak, and his leadership days were behind him.
These are not Kadyrov's first announcements of his readiness to leave his post. In April 2015, he said that he "would be happy to give up [his] power." Back then, such strong statements were caused by the worsening of his relations with federal law enforcement authorities.
In Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, a Russian SWAT team and Stavropol Territory police carried out a special operation during which ethnic Chechen Dzhambulat Dadaev was killed. Before that, Dadaev was put on the national most wanted list. Kadyrov interpreted the operation as an assault on his authority and the special status of Chechnya.
In April 2015, he not only criticized police officers' actions, but also promised that if police forces from other regions were to be working in Chechnya again without prior approval of its leadership, his law enforcement staff would use deadly force. His most powerful argument that supported his claim was the suggestion that otherwise he would resign his post.
Still, even before the scandal around the Grozny operation, Kadyrov repeatedly showed that he had no true alternative as a guarantor of Chechnya's pro-Russian stance, the defender of moderate Islam and the most loyal follower of President Vladimir Putin.
However, the current context is very different from what we saw last year. In April 2016, Kadyrov's term as head of Chechnya runs out. He has held the position since February 2007, when upon the dismissal of Alu Alkhanov, the former president of Chechnya, Kadyrov first became the acting Chechen president, and soon the republic’s parliament supported him as the protégé of President Putin.
By the way, it did not take long before Kadyrov did away with the presidential post, and since then, the top regional official has been referred to as "the head." In March 2011, Chechnya's top legislative body acted on Putin's recommendation and approved Kadyrov for another five-year term.
The election of a new head of Chechnya should be held in September 2016. Unlike neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan where regional parliaments elect the regional leader, Chechen elections will be decided by a universal vote.
The Kremlin's reaction adds another twist to the story behind Kadyrov's statements. For example, Dmitry Peskov, the Russian President's press spokesperson, stated that the decision on the political future of the head of Chechnya would be made no earlier than "the end of his term."
Back at the end of January, President Putin referred to Kadyrov as a "qualified" leader and personally thanked the head of the republic and his father Akhmad for their accomplishments.
Sergei Ivanov, the chief of staff of the presidential administration, unequivocally stated that the federal center "saw no issue" with the situation in Chechnya. Then many analysts interpreted such compliments as manifestations of the Kremlin's solidarity with Kadyrov's harsh rhetoric towards the Russian "non-systemic" opposition.
It has not been a month since, and the head of Chechnya started exhibiting signs of anxiety. According to Igor Bunin, the general director of the Center for Political Technologies, the Russian President avoids encounters with Kadyrov. The latter's communication with Moscow is limited to contacts with the first deputy chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin.
So what is behind Kadyrov's statements? Could it be that the Kremlin's favorite fell from grace and is about to be replaced? And if that is the case, could we expect major changes in Chechnya, and what would they entail?
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The head of Chechnya enjoys a special status among other regional leaders. No other part of Russia has ever been a de facto sovereign entity outside of the federal jurisdiction. That is why nowhere else in Russia regional authorities possess so much autonomy and independence.
No other regional leader dares to engage the federal officials in a public dispute. And most certainly no one else sees himself as equal to the president of Russia or perceives his service as the immediate fulfillment of direct orders from the first person in the nation.
"The pacified Chechnya" became a symbol of contemporary Russia, along with the declaration of an independent foreign policy, "true sovereignty" and "rising from its knees." Using either his sixth sense or his attuned political acumen, Kadyrov understands his part in securing this symbol extremely well, even if actual politics does not always match the PR image.
However, the "Chechen stability" directly determines its leader's ambitions of active involvement in Russian domestic and foreign policy. Lately, Kadyrov has exhibited signs of outgrowing Chechnya, but his pretenses on becoming a national-level politician may rub some Moscow officials the wrong way. His opponents include not only the opposition, but also law enforcement agencies, diplomats, and top administrative officials who would rather see Kadyrov follow orders than give them.
And that seems to be the main predicament of the current Kadyrov issue. So what are the ways of keeping a loyal regional leader without letting him cross set boundaries?
That is a tough question, especially since the Kremlin dedicated a lot of time to "boosting" Kadyrov's power and eliminating all possible alternatives. Moscow did not just vest him with administrative resources, but also worked hard to prop up his authority within Checnya.
However authoritative he may be, the ability to go all the way to the top to resolve important issues, active lobbying of ethnic interests and attempts to defend Chechens all over the world increased Kadyrov's popularity in his region. His support is not absolute, but he cannot be easily dismissed by anyone who seeks to maintain the stability of Chechnya.
The most pressing and problematic issue though is not the choice of a replacement leader, but the creation of an alternative power structure. Without it, soon Chechnya will get another "father of the republic" under a different name. However, let us not jump to conclusions.
A lot of things are not discussed openly, but they are definitely mulled over outside of the public eye. Kadyrov's strong opinions are a way to test the Kremlin, which has a lot to think about before considering the matter closed.
Another can of worms is that the intrigues that play out behind the scenes overshadow and obscure actual issues with Chechen integration into Russia, the true purpose for which so much was sacrificed for over the past few years.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.