Ramzan Kadyrov, the wilful leader of Russia’s southern Chechen republic, is talking about standing down. He says it is his “dream”. However, if past practise is anything to go by, this does not mean for a minute that he is contemplating retirement at 41, or even relinquishing his ruthless grip on what has become his virtual personal fiefdom. Instead, this likely means that Kadyrov wants something – and that in itself tells us about the state of Russia today.
Interviewed on state-owned Rossiya-1 TV channel on November 26, Kadyrov said that “there was a time when people like me were needed to fight, to establish order,” but “now we have order.” Although he held back from announcing his resignation, he added that were Moscow to be looking for a successor, there were “several people who can do the job perfectly”.
The irony is that many in Moscow would agree. Kadyrov is mistrusted and despised by many within the elite, including the heads of most of the security apparata. The former rebel who changed sides to fight for Russia during the second Chechen war of 1999-2009 has created a de facto independence beyond the dreams of many of the rebels. The local security forces – the so-called “Kadyrovtsy” – may wear Russian uniforms, but they swear an oath of allegiance to Kadyrov. He picks and chooses all the local officials. And, best of all, from his point of view, he gets Moscow to pay for it. Federal subsidies account for more than 80 percent of Chechnya’s budget.
The issue is not just that Kadyrov is wilful and enjoys the good life on Moscow’s rubble – his extravagances include a private zoo and a $1.4m Lamborghini Reventon supercar, one of only 20 ever made – but also that he so often flouts the rules outside his own republic. Many Russians assume he was behind the embarrassing 2015 murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov literally under the walls of the Kremlin.
Back in February 2016, Kadyrov made a show of reluctance to stand for re-election, musing that he might simply want to be a common soldier fighting Russia’s wars. Of course, he did stand again and won another five-year term as a local leader against no serious opposition.
Ultimately, Kadyrov challenges the Kremlin when he wants something to happen – or to prevent something.
But the important thing was that he forced Moscow to contemplate life without him. Russian movers and shakers may despise Kadyrov and be embarrassed by this unsophisticated, thuggish figure whose antics range from Instagramming prolifically to punishing underperforming ministers with a drubbing in the boxing ring.
However, they are also terrified by the thought of another Chechen war, especially now that they are so heavily committed in Syria and Ukraine. The common belief is that given the extent to which all Chechen power structures have been colonised by people related or beholden to Kadyrov – even its representative to parliament in Moscow is his cousin, Adam Delimkhanov – then the loss of Kadyrov would destabilise Chechnya.
What destabilises Chechnya would likely also destabilise the whole North Caucasus region, where corruption, maladministration and economic hardship is creating a serious terrorist and insurgent challenge. A classified report from the National Guard has suggested that in such case, some 100,000 National Guardsmen and another 50,000 troops from the regular army would need to be deployed.
As a result, even Kadyrov’s most bitter critics see him as the lesser evil. Putin appears to tolerate him, and the head of the National Guard, General Viktor Zolotov, is his best ally in Moscow. Otherwise, Kadyrov has no real friends in the capital. So long as most of them fear chaos more than Kadyrov, though, he is safe.
But what does Kadyrov want? Back in 2016, he was concerned to head off any danger that the flow of federal money to Chechnya might be reduced. Moscow was openly committed to developing the newly annexed Crimean Peninsula, and covertly also having to spend not just in fighting its undeclared proxy war in southeastern Ukraine but supporting the region’s collapsed economy. Meanwhile, Moscow and St Petersburg expected their usual priority, and net donor regions such as Tatarstan and Yakutia were beginning to agitate for a greater share of the national budget.
His rumination about resignation had their effect. Moscow felt it has no viable alternatives who could control Chechnya’s carnivorous elite and command the loyalty of the “Kadyrovtsy” so it instead capitulated. Kadyrov was quietly reassured that the money – which he also needs to keep his clients and followers loyal – would continue to flow.
This is not a completely one-way relationship. Kadyrov sent Chechen military police to Syria, for example, in part in return for Moscow’s allowing him to keep his “Kadyrovtsy” out of the National Guard’s chain of command. But ultimately, Kadyrov challenges the Kremlin when he wants something to happen – or to prevent something.
It could be that he fears renewed attempts to cut his budget. A recent report from Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said that more than $1bn had been spent on Chechnya, with “no economic impact at all“.
However, it likely also reflects growing political uncertainty. Putin is expected to stand again for the presidency in 2018, in which case he will undoubtedly win. But his apparent reluctance to announce his candidature and a sense that he is getting tired of the position is generating considerable behind the scenes debate in Moscow about the succession. Putin may remain for another full six-year term, or may hand power to a protege before then, as Boris Yeltsin did for him, but either way, talk of the “next president” is increasingly common.
In that context, rather than hinting at his own departure from the political scene, Kadyrov may well be making a statement: Whoever is Russia’s next president, he will need me just as much as Putin did.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.