- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

MOSCOW — It’s the birthday Chechens have been awaiting.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the most feared and powerful man in Chechnya, turns 30 tomorrow, making him eligible to become president of the war-torn republic in southern Russia.

In most parts of the world, Mr. Kadyrov would hardly fit the profile of a presidential contender. The son of former Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, who was killed in a 2004 bomb blast, Mr. Kadyrov shared a house with notorious rebel warlord Shamil Basayev before he joined his father in switching sides in the late 1990s.

Today, he heads a 10,000-strong private army renowned for its ruthlessness toward Chechnya’s civilian population. He counts boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson among his friends and keeps lions and an endangered Siberian tiger as pets on his family estate. He could barely speak Russian until recently, and after the death of his father appeared beside President Vladimir Putin on national television in sweat pants.

Yet few doubt that Mr. Kadyrov will be running Chechnya soon.

“Ramzan has really been the president in waiting since the death of his father,” said Andrew McGregor, the director of Aberfoyle International Security Analysis in Toronto. “The Russians have been grooming him and this is the post he’s destined for.”

Mr. Putin has made no secret of his support for Mr. Kadyrov, awarding him the Hero of Russia medal, the country’s highest honor, and welcoming him numerous times in the Kremlin. Observers say Mr. Kadyrov represents the culmination of the Kremlin’s policy of “Chechenization” — handing over the day-to-day task of pacifying Chechnya to local forces.

The strategy appears to be working. Attacks in Chechnya, where Russian forces have fought two bloody wars with rebel separatists, have decreased significantly this year. Mr. Basayev was killed this summer, and Russia has experienced no major rebel-backed terrorist attacks since the Beslan school massacre two years ago.

Mr. Kadyrov has said he would welcome the presidency. “If it is the will of people, then it is something we must agree with,” he told reporters last week.

Still, critics say Kremlin support of Mr. Kadyrov could backfire. His brutal tactics have turned many ordinary Chechens against him, his militia has clashed repeatedly with other local forces, and he has shown signs of increasing rebelliousness toward Moscow.

Human rights groups accuse Mr. Kadyrov’s forces, known as the Kadyrovtsy, of widespread abuses, including abductions, torture and killings. After killing a rebel fighter in July, the Kadyrovtsy hung his severed head from a drainpipe in a Chechen village as a warning.

The Kadyrovtsy also are known for their frequent clashes with rival forces in Chechnya.

Analysts say Mr. Kadyrov also has begun to annoy the Kremlin by overstepping his bounds in demanding greater autonomy for Chechnya. He has openly criticized federal authorities for failing to provide funds for reconstruction and this fall introduced legislation that would give Chechnya control over its strategically important oil sector.

“Ramzan is a continual source of problems for the Kremlin and his statements are becoming harder to ignore,” said Alexei Malashenko, a Chechnya observer at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

Still, after investing so much in Mr. Kadyrov, the Kremlin has little choice but to hope it can keep him under control and try to subdue simmering tensions in Chechnya, Mr. Malashenko said.

In the end, Mr. McGregor said, Mr. Kadyrov may turn out to be only the latest in a long line of seemingly loyal Chechen leaders who eventually turn against their masters in Moscow.

“The Chechens have been fighting against Russian rule for centuries,” he said. “Chechnya is more in a state of exhaustion than pacification. The insurgency will be back.”

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