Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov is looking for an assistant to help him rule his southern Russian region, and to find the right person for the job, he's borrowing from Donald Trump's signature reality TV show, "The Apprentice."
Called "Kommanda," or "The Team" in Russian, Kadyrov's show made its national debut on Russian state-run television Wednesday night. While show's setting among the soaring peaks of the North Caucasus mountains couldn't be further from the dark, stuffy boardrooms where Trump put his stamp on the phrase "You're fired," the plot was pretty much a knockoff.
Kadyrov, known for attention-grabbing moves such as barring President Obama from entering Chechnya, as well as the human-rights abuses that crushed dissent and tamed the region after two devastating civil wars, used the first episode to introduce 16 contestants to his family's alpine ancestral village and his opulent headquarters in the provincial capital, Grozny.
The show opens with Kadyrov clad in a military uniform amid the ruins of an ancient Chechen fortress as dramatic music plays, punctuated by the scream of an eagle. Then the contestants, who all speak Russian, are introduced and asked to share their reasons for coming and their vision. "I was tired of the comfort of Europe," says one, who had been working for a business in Germany.
For his first assignment, Kadyrov gathers 3,000 people in a soccer stadium, splits the contestants into two teams, and challenges them organize the crowd, mainly women wearing headscarves, into depicting the name of their team. When one team fails miserably, Kadyrov admonishes them: "What is 3,000 people? Nothing, really! We work with 1,300,000!"
One principle difference between "The Apprentice" and "The Team": Trump would boast to contestants about his business conquests. Kadyrov lectures them on how his father, a former rebel who switched sides, had to persuade Chechens to support his pro-Russian government. His father, Ahmad Kadyrov, was killed by a separatist bombing attack in 2004.
"To be on our team you have to be on the team of our president, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin," Kadyrov says.
Kadyrov, a close ally of Putin, won reelection as Chechnya’s leader last month with almost 98 percent of the vote. He has publicly threatened anyone who challenges his rule, and some of his critics have been assassinated, including human rights activist Natalia Estemirova and investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya.
The Kadyrov who is a feared dictator is nowhere to be seen on the show. Instead, he's affable even when he's critiquing the contestants. When it comes time to send home the first loser, Kadyrov writes down the name, and the TV host carries it out to the contestant in a sealed envelope that sports the blue, red and white of the Russian flag.
Although Russia is officially a secular state, Kadyrov has gradually imposed strict Islamic laws and practices, including the omission of women from senior government positions. At one point in the show, a female contestant asks whether she has a chance to win the position of Kadyrov's assistant. Kadyrov tells her: “A woman is a housewife.” Later in the show, the men play a soccer match; the female contestants, wearing headscarves, watch from the stands.
While the show cast Kadyrov in the favorable light reserved for senior Russian leaders in Putin's favor, he faced a Kremlin-ordered investigation Thursday after he entered children as young as 8 years old into a mixed-martial arts tournament in Grozny on Tuesday.
The tournament, in which children fought without protective gear, featured three of Kadyrov's sons, all of whom won their respective matches. Kadyrov's 10-year-old, Ahmad, won the fight by knocking out another child. Kadyrov posted the bout on his Instagram account.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Thursday that a fight between 10-year-olds finished with a technical knockout was “a reason for the appropriate oversight agencies to inquire about this incident.” Earlier, a senior sports official told reporters that children under age 12 are not allowed to enter the ring.