(AP) MOSCOW – As Russia grapples with terrorism and instability in Chechnya, a powerful ruler-in-waiting is forcing President Vladimir Putin’s hand: the 28-year-old son of a slain Chechen president who commands a feared militia and an oil-fueled business empire.
Ramzan Kadyrov leads 2,000 to 4,000 well-armed troops, who battle rebels but operate independently of Moscow. And he has ties to businessmen involved in the widespread corruption that saps money sent from Moscow intended to reconstruct Chechnya after years of war — one reason he may not be keen on ending the conflict.
Kadyrov’s father Akhmad, the Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya, was killed in a May bombing at a stadium while celebrating the anniversary of the end of World War II. Putin promptly summoned Ramzan Kadyrov to the Kremlin to express his condolences and he was appointed first deputy prime minister for Chechnya in the subsequent reshuffling of power.
It was widely speculated that Kadyrov, who has a boyish, chubby face and wears a trimmed beard, would succeed his father. But he said he wouldn’t participate in the race because he didn’t meet the minimum age of 30 for president set by the Chechen constitution.
That doesn’t mean his influence has waned in any way without his father in power.
“It’s impossible to do something important in Chechnya without consultations with Kadyrov,” said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Chechnya at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The new Chechen president, Alu Alkhanov — who won the Kremlin-orchestrated election Aug. 29 to replace Kadyrov’s father — has himself acknowledged he is only a transitional leader to keep the seat of power warm for the younger Kadyrov, Malashenko said.
In an interview before the election, Kadyrov said he would support the Kremlin’s choice and he saw no conflict between his local allegiances and Putin’s government. “We have taken this peaceful path in the name of Allah and the Kremlin,” he told Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
But experts said Putin shouldn’t bank on Kadyrov’s continued loyalty. Although Kadyrov supports keeping Chechnya as a part of Russia, he has called for the region to be economically independent and operate as a free-trade zone, and also for the oil business there to stay in local hands.
“Everybody wants to believe that Kadyrov is controlled by the Kremlin,” said Alexander Golts, a military observer for the magazine Yezhenedelny Zhurnal. “We cannot exclude the situation where this man will go out of control.”
Kadyrov’s militia is “very well-armed,” according to Malashenko, and has the latest in armored vehicles. The force enjoys loyalty within the Chechen city of Gudermes, where Kadyrov is based, and in the Kadyrovs’ hometown of Tsentoroi, but the fighters are largely feared elsewhere across Chechnya and have been accused of abuses ranging from kidnappings to robberies.
His vast business interests in Chechnya’s valuable oil industry include owning some 30 gas stations, said Malashenko. Kadyrov is very rich, but determining the size of his fortune — or that of any businessman in Russia, where most try to shield wealth from authorities — is difficult.
Kadyrov’s troops include many former rebels who have turned to the other side, a common phenomenon in Chechnya where turncoats are a fact of daily life, with clan and blood ties trumping other allegiances. Though officially the presidential security service, Kadyrov’s fighters are commonly referred to as “Kadyrovskii Spetsnaz,” or Kadyrov’s Commandos.
“When the federal troops move in Grozny, the main rule is just one: never to stop a car filled with armed people with Kadyrovskii Spetsnaz written on their backs. They may not be Kadyrovskii Spetsnaz, or they may be Kadyrovskii Spetsnaz — and there will be shooting nevertheless,” said Yulia Latynina, a political analyst and columnist.
The government has no strategy for addressing the militia, mired as it is in the daily rebel attacks, bombings and mine explosions.
“It’s a total deadlock what to do with these people,” Golts said.
Even within Kadyrov’s forces, there are signs of a growing rift with the rebels it has assimilated. Malashenko said there were unconfirmed reports that as many as 700 former rebels had recently headed back to the mountains, where the rebels have their bases.
In fact, one of the bloodiest recent battles in Chechnya involved a firefight between the rebels and Kadyrov’s militia — not Russian army troops.
Chechnya’s chief prosecutor said a dozen of Kadyrov’s troops were taken captive and eight policemen were killed in the July 13 ambush. Five rebels also died in the village of Avtury — an area outside Kadyrov’s normal roaming grounds where rebels find sympathy.
“If earlier rebellious armed forces clashed mostly with the federal forces and their collaborators, then today it appears that there is no longer any clear-cut front line in Chechnya,” the Internet newspaper Gazeta.ru wrote in a commentary after the fighting. “Today’s Chechnya resembles a minefield: There are no open hostilities and yet no one feels safe.”