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Is Chechnya preparing for Kadyrov's demise — and what could come next?

by Katie Marie Davies May 6, 2024 11:07 PM 8 min read
Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov in a photo posted on 10 March 2022. (Kadyrov's Telegram channel)
by Katie Marie Davies May 6, 2024 11:07 PM 8 min read
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New reporting has put the Chechen warlord's health in the headlines once more. But there are other, subtler, signs that the republic might be preparing for a regime change.

Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov is used to speculation about his imminent demise. Pundits have discussed the 47-year-old's failing health since September when the Chechen leader disappeared from the public eye, and rumors began to circulate that he was seriously unwell.

In the months since Kadyrov's appearance had changed, his face appeared swollen, and his words sometimes slurred. Russian news outlet Novaya Gazeta Europe reported that Kadyrov was suffering from necrotizing pancreatitis.

The warlord was reportedly diagnosed with the condition, which happens when a person's pancreas starts to die, in 2019. By 2022, Kadyrov was struggling with both kidney failure and fluid build-up in his lungs, Novaya Gazeta Europe wrote.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (L) attends a meeting with Vladimir Putin (L) in Moscow, Russia, on Jun. 28, 2023. (Kadyrov's Telegram channel)

It also reported that the Kremlin was looking for a successor.

Chechen officials moved quickly to dispel the rumors. A behind-the-scenes clip of Kadyrov's war cabinet appeared on social media hours after Novaya Gazeta Europe's reporting went live, apparently to show a vibrant leader rallying his generals.

The play quickly backfired.

The cabinet clip showed a barely moving Kadyrov slurring a rambling monotone. A second clip, this time showing Kadyrov at a gym, made international headlines but appeared to convince few of the Chechen leader's well-being.

Most have no doubt that Ramzan Kadyrov is unwell. But this doesn't automatically mean that the warlord will die in the immediate future.

"Kadyrov is undoubtedly seriously ill. The decline is so evident," says Harold Chambers, an analyst focusing on nationalism, conflict, and security in the North Caucasus. "But at the same time, he's getting some of the best treatment. That's how it is for government officials around the world: they get the healthcare they need."

Yet there are signs that power dynamics are changing within the Chechen Republic (Chechnya): whether to lay the ground for when Ramzan dies or allow him to take a less active role in daily governance.

A family legacy

One of the most noticeable changes in Chechnya's political scene has been the growing role played by Kadyrov's eldest sons: 18-year-old Akhmat and 16-year-old Adam Kadyrov.

In February 2024, Akhmat received his first ministerial posting as Chechnya's minister for youth and sports, a job given to him after less than two years of leading the region's state-backed youth movement. Akhmat also met Russian President Vladimir Putin in a highly unusual one-on-one meeting when he was just 17. Russian media outlets reported that the teenager was married soon after — a move which could help the Kadyrov family shore up alliances.

The son of Chechen strongman, Akhmat Kadyrov (L), with Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) in Moscow, Russia in March 2023. (Ramzan Kadyrov's Telegram channel)
The son of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, Adam Kadyrov (R), with Kadyrov's right-hand man Adam Delimkhanov, on Oct. 6, 2023. (Adam Delimkhanov/Telegram)

Adam, meanwhile, was appointed to his father's bodyguard in November 2023 and named as a trustee at a training school for Chechen special forces at the end of April. The institution also happens to be named in honor of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Previously, the teenager was best known for being captured on camera, beating an unarmed prisoner accused of burning the Quran.

To a certain extent, this is an expected transition. Ramzan Kadyrov effectively inherited his role as head of Chechnya from his own father; it's unsurprising that he would start grooming his children so that they could take a similar position in adulthood. Yet the speed with which these changes are taking place is noticeable.

"(Ramzan Kadyrov's) eldest kids are all coming of age, so they probably would be starting their transition into government roles anyway," says Chambers.

"But I think it's safe to say there are probably certain things that are happening faster than they would. That can probably be ascribed to his illness, at least in part."

Yet whether Akhmat or Adam Kadyrov would actually take over in the event of their father's death is debatable. When Ramzan's father died, he was 28 — and still had to wait several years to take office as Russian law bars those under 30 from serving as Chechen leader. His experience is a far cry from that of his eldest son, who has only just reached adulthood and has thus far only led a youth group.

The archival photo shows Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov (R) and his son Ramzan standing in front of Ramzan's house in Tsentoroy, Kadyrov's native village, some 40 km from Chechen capital Grozny on Jan. 30, 2004. (Stringer /AFP via Getty Images)

"It's quite clear what (Ramzan Kadyrov) has been trying to do by picking out particular family members, but age is not on their side," says Cerwyn Moore, associate professor in International Relations specializing in the North Caucasus at the University of Birmingham.

He speculates that placing the elder Kadyrov males in the public eye could be a way of protecting the teenagers and their younger siblings from potential threats from would-be rivals.

But ultimately, neither Akhmat nor Adam has a good chance of taking their father's place, says Moore. "They're just too young."

A matter of trust

Other high-ranking Chechen officials have also started taking on tasks that previously would have fallen to the Chechen leader. In one recent example, Adam Delimkhanov, a Russian lawmaker and one of Kadyrov's right-hand men, traveled to Iran to represent the republic on an official visit.

Kadyrov has built a trusted network within his inner circle, allowing him to keep some kind of hold on Chechnya even if his health declines, says Chambers. "These are long-time stakeholders with specific roles in managing specific parts of both the republic's formal and informal politics," says Chambers.

But it's also these men who could foreseeably take over Chechnya's top spot in the event of Ramzan's death. The republic's leading families are already well-versed in jostling behind the scenes to move up the ranks and gain advantageous positions, says Chambers. Without Kadyrov in the picture to keep them in line, that fighting is likely to become much more apparent and potentially even bloody.

The three most likely men to take over from Kadyrov are Apti Alaudinov, who commands Chechen Akhmat unit fighting in Ukraine, Magomed Daudov, the speaker of the Chechen parliament, and the aforementioned Delimkhanov, leading the Chechen branch of the National Guard of Russia which is de facto independent from Moscow.

(L-R) Russian lawmaker Adam Delimkhanov, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Magomed Daudov, head of the local council, attend a ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on June 22, 2015. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

All have been called Kadyrov's "right-hand men" in the past.

Each has their own advantages and disadvantages when it comes to their ability to seize power — and getting the Kremlin's approval to do so.

Delimkhanov has been described by Kadyrov as "a brother," but his connections to the criminal underworld tarnish his credibility; he has been accused of multiple killings and assassinations, including those of people close to the Russian administration.

Delimkhanov has been linked to several high-profile murders – Chechen warlords Sulim Yamadayev (killed in 2006) and Movladi Baisarov (killed in 2009) and high-profile Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov, killed near the Kremlin in 2015.

Daudov has consistently proven himself to be a loyal and reliable Kadyrov ally, but he currently operates exclusively within Chechnya, making it more difficult for him to win approval in Moscow.

Alaudinov fell out of favor with Chechnya's inner circle in 2019 when he was linked to other officials who were caught privately criticizing the Kadyrov family. His star, however, is now on the rise again, thanks to his effectiveness on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Delimkhanov also took multiple videos in full military uniform in occupied Mariupol, following Russian victory in the battle for the city.

Yet ultimately, all three — as well as the many others who could see their star rise as Kadyrov declines — are similar in that they have a vested interest in keeping Chechnya's status quo, where a handful of families rule the region with an iron fist.

All have luxurious properties in Russia and abroad. There is little appetite for bloodshed or ideological change, says Moore.

"There is no specific ideological difference between, say, Delimkhanov and Magomed Daudov. These are all people who have pledged their loyalty to the Kadyrov brand or will have connections to the Kadyrov family. There is a careful, interlocking house of cards in place," he says.

"They all have bought into the system of corrupt power and governance within Chechnya. Many of them have blood on their hands from the things that they have done."

Moscow's approval

Ultimately, anyone hoping to take Kadyrov's place — whether that means taking a more active role as the warlord's health declines or replacing him following his death — would need the Kremlin's blessing.

Moscow has its own web of posturing officials, each with their own preferences. "I'd consider Adam Delimkhanov, for example, to be on the Kremlin's blacklist. Reasonably, he is the best qualified, but he also knows where all the skeletons are buried," says Moore. "Too many in Moscow hate him, especially in the security services."

But in many ways, the individual ruling the Chechen Republic does not matter to Moscow as long as they meet key commitments, such as unwavering loyalty to the Kremlin and support for the invasion of Ukraine. With the memory of the two Chechen wars still recent, it is also vital that any successor to Kadyrov be able to maintain security and stability in the region.

A Russian soldier patrols a destroyed residential area in the city of Sievierodonetsk, Luhansk Oblast, Ukraine on July 12, 2022. (Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images)
Civilians come back to the main Grozny market after its destruction by a Russian missile, Chechnya in 1999. (Antoine GYORI/Sygma via Getty Images)

Groups such as the Islamic State continue to prove a threat in Russia, as the recent Crocus City Hall shooting shows.

It is unlikely that movement amongst the Chechen leadership could provoke large-scale civil unrest or revive the independence movements of the 1990s and 2000s, says Ali Askerov, associate professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

"The Chechen people — the people who were in the war and fighting against Russia, those who now live abroad — those guys are still dreaming of Chechnya's independence. But for them to return, they need new leadership, and that's not in place. The conditions are not ripe for that," he says.

Moscow's destabilization, rather than Grozny's, will have the greatest impact on security in Chechnya.

"If Putin dies, that's going to have a serious effect," says Askerov. "Ramzan's death? That won't change a lot."

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