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June 18, 2003
Caucasus Diary:
A Chechen Revolution
How sacking all your ministers and then reappointing (nearly) all of them can be a masterstroke.
By Nabi Abdullaev

MOSCOW, Russia--It was a brilliant move, a stunt that all but assures the little-loved head of the Mosow-backed Chechen administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, of becoming Chechnyas new president.

In early June, he sacked his entire government--and then reappointed almost every minister he had just dismissed. In one fell swoop, he has made them all loyalists. With that, and the parallel dismissal of all the heads of Chechnya's district administrations, he has paved and all but cleared his road to the presidency.

For outsiders, this cabinet reshuffle (if reshuffle is quite the word) may seem senseless. For natives of the Caucasus, with their feudal traditions in which loyalty counts for more than professionalism in public management, Kadyrov has wrought a revolution.

In 2000, Moscow picked the Chechen top clergyman under President Aslan Maskhadov, mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, as an apparently transitory figure to head the puppet leadership of Chechnya. The choice was reasonable: Although in the first Chechen war in 1994-1996 Kadyrov had called for a jihad against the Russians, when the second conflict erupted in 1999 this mufti was the first Chechen to publicly lash out at Maskhadov and foreign Islamic militants for plunging Chechnya in a bloody quagmire.

A savvy organizer, over the past three years he has strengthened his position, turning himself into a ruler with a mind and will of his own and--after Chechnyas constitutional referendum in March--into the republics acting president.

Kadyrov's perpetual attempts to edge out officials appointed to his government by the Kremlin were often a success, notably in January, when he managed to rid himself of a prime minister, Mikhail Babich, who had been foisted upon him against his will.

However, before his crucial decree on 4 June, Kadyrovs cabinet was staffed by people given seats by Kadyrov's first prime minister, Stanislav Ilyasov, or by figures thrust upon him by Russian President Vladimir Putins envoy in the Northern Caucasus, Viktor Kazantsev, and Russian military and law-enforcement agencies. Indeed, under a January 2001 decree delineating powers in Chechnya, Kadyrov would have had to reach agreement with Kazantsev over the choice of any new prime minister.

However, after the referendum, Kadyrov was granted the critical power to appoint people in his government, including the prime minister.

He made a good use of this new right on 4 June.

Sacked, the ministers had to swear loyalty to Kadyrov before being given their seats back. They thereby automatically became members of his presidential campaign team. Any other Chechen president would regard them as Kadyrov's people and replace them. To keep their offices in Grozny, members of the current government will therefore have to work hard to ensure that the elections do not produce a new president. (No date for the vote has been fixed, though Kadyrov is proposing 7 December, the same day as elections to the Duma will be held.)

Underlining Kadyrovs show of power was his decision not to make any criticism of the ministers, limiting himself to saying that he wanted to streamline the cabinet's future work. (There was, as it happens, no reduction in the number of ministerial seats or any obvious streamlining.) This sent out a powerful psychological message, making clear to the Chechen bureaucracy who the ultimate boss is in the republic--and that the boss does not need to explain himself.

Moscow has kept mum about the move, apparently accepting Kadyrov's superiority in this power game.

Kadyrov elevated only three new men into his government, all of them loyalists. Two of the appointments--to the Economic Development Ministry and the government's compensations committee--will help him to secure his grip over billions of rubles that Russia is pouring into the reconstruction of Chechnya and to compensate to Chechen civilians who have lost their homes and property during the conflict.

(The third appointment was less meaningful: Kadyrov turned one of his aides into the nationalities minister.)

The other part of the revolt a la Kadyrov, a reshuffle of the heads of Chechnyas district administrations, may have won less media attention but could have even more practical value to Kadyrov in his campaign for the presidency: These are the officials who will form electoral commissions and oversee elections--both presidential and parliamentary--in their districts.

In Grozny, the Chechen capital, he took a risk when he replaced a career officer in the Russian intelligence service, Oleg Zhidkov, catapulting a young and minor executive in the republican government, 30-year-old Khoj-Akhmed Arsanov, into the mayors seat. But it has secured him of the support of Arsanovs clan, one of the most influential in Chechnya.

And still Moscow has said nothing, despite rumors that its military and intelligence services heavily favored Zhidkov.

Two heads of district administrations who had raised their voices against Kadyrov, Shamil Buraev of the Achkhoi-Martan district and Isita Gairbekova from the district of Nozhai-Yurt, were also replaced by Kadyrov supporters.

In spring 2000, when Kadyrov had just been appointed head of Chechnyas interim administration, Buraev--who was appointed the district's head not long before--openly told Putin that Moscow had chosen badly when it picked Kadyrov.

And certainly Kadyrovs popularity among common Chechens is modest. No more than 10 percent of them would vote for him for him as president, according to a variety of polls. Eventually, to ease Kadyrov into power, officials further down the system will have to rig the presidential elections. In districts headed by unfriendly officials, the outcomes of the vote would have differed dramatically from the results reported by Kadyrov's loyalists. That would have raised unpleasant questions. Now, with Kadryovs people everywhere, one can be sure of a uniform vote in Chechnya.

Before the Chechen parliament is elected (possibly in March 2004, when Russias presidential elections will be held), its role will be played by an interim representative and legislative body dubbed the State Council. On 16 June, its creation was completed. The State Council comprises the heads of Chechnyas 18 district administrations; the mayors of the republics three major towns, Grozny, Gudermes and Argun; and an elected representative from each of these districts and towns. There is almost no doubt that after this reshuffle the State Council's functions will be limited to cheerleading Kadyrov's next initiatives.

The lack of response by the Kremlin indicates that, either through choice or forced by Kadyrovs brilliance, Moscow has made up its mind who will be the legitimate(d) head of Chechnya. Sensitive to the Kremlin's mood, Chechen politicians who had also nurtured presidential ambitions (mostly diaspora leaders in Moscow) will also keep mum. Only the sole Chechen representative in the State Duma, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, is now speaking up and saying that the machinery of the Chechen state, such as it is, is Kadyrov's private property.

What everyone now realizes is that the former mufti was the only person who did his homework thoroughly.

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