By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 16, 2007
MOSCOW, Feb. 15 -- President Vladimir Putin dismissed the president of Chechnya on Thursday, clearing a path to the southern republic's highest office for Ramzan Kadyrov, the controversial prime minister of Chechnya who has been accused of major human rights abuses in his drive to pacify the war-torn region.
Putin appointed Kadyrov as acting president. Alu Alkhanov, who had been president since May 2004, was appointed deputy justice minister of Russia. Alkhanov became president when Kadyrov's father, a former separatist who switched his loyalties to the Kremlin, was assassinated with a bomb in the Chechen capital, Grozny. Alkhanov's departure had been rumored for weeks, and he was reportedly under pressure from Kadyrov to step aside.
The younger Kadyrov was not eligible to become president until he turned 30, which he did in October. As deputy prime minister and later prime minister, ostensibly under Alkhanov, Kadyrov was regarded as the real power in Chechnya.
A brash, ginger-haired man, Kadyrov commands a large paramilitary group, composed mostly of former rebels, that has essentially displaced Russian federal troops and special police units as the principal force in Chechnya.
Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated last year, wrote in 2005 that "the Kremlin decided to replace one type of civil war (federal troops versus a broad strata of Chechen society) with another type (Chechens fighting Chechens for power in Chechnya and federal funding from Moscow)."
Kadyrov's black-clad troops have been accused by human rights groups and some of his Chechen critics of torture, abductions and disappearances.
"He acts like a medieval tyrant," Movladi Baisarov, a former Chechen special forces officer who broke with Kadyrov, said in a newspaper interview last year.
"I know of many people executed on his express orders, and I know exactly where they are buried. If someone tells the truth about what is going on, it's like signing his own death warrant," Baisarov added.
A month later, on Nov. 18, Baisarov was shot dead on Moscow's busy Leninsky Prospekt while apparently resisting arrest. Some witnesses said he was shot repeatedly by specially dispatched Chechen police as he lay on the ground and Moscow police officers stood by.
Kadyrov has repeatedly denied having any connection to killings or other human rights violations.
In the past 12 years, rebels and Russian forces have fought two brutal wars in Chechnya. Kadyrov's defenders, including the Kremlin, credit him with routing the separatist movement and reducing violence in Chechnya, although armed clashes continue. Yet there has not been a major terrorist attack in Russia since the seizure of a school in the southern town of Beslan in September 2004, and a number of Chechen rebel leaders have been killed in special operations by Russian forces.
The Kremlin has pursued a policy of substituting Chechens for Russians in the republic, handing over power to local officials as a constitution was written and a parliament elected. The elevation of Kadyrov, who was awarded a Hero of Russia medal by Putin in 2004, would mark the culmination of that process.
Some analysts in Moscow, however, contend that Kadyrov has assumed so much power that he could easily slip out of the Kremlin's control, if he has not already, and spark more conflict. Kadyrov's image is almost ubiquitous in the province, leading to charges that he is building a cult of personality.
Despite Russia's constitutional secularism, Kadyrov has been burnishing his Islamic credentials in Chechnya, which is predominantly Muslim. He has advocated the introduction of some aspects of sharia, or Islamic law, including polygamy and bans on alcohol and gambling.
Sergei Markedonov, an expert on the Caucasus region at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, calls Kadyrov a "system separatist" who is undermining Russian authority while pledging formal loyalty to the Kremlin.