What Would Change
If Kadyrov Dies?
October 2, 2023
  • Marat Ilyasov
    GW Visiting Scholar

Marat Ilyasov writes about the persistent rumors of Kadyrov’s deteriorating health and the Chechen elite’s efforts to squelch these rumors, and also explores the possible consequences for Chechnya should Kadyrov disappear from the scene.

Putin's meeting with Ramzan Kadyrov on September 28 was intended to dispel rumors of Kadyrov's serious health problems. Source: VK
In September, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, the North Caucasus republic inside Russia that went from fighting a war to leave Russia to being one of the most loyal toward the Kremlin, was widely rumored to be seriously ill. Although the rumors were quashed by his meeting with Putin in the Kremlin on September 28, political analysts have contemplated the potential ramifications of his passing, focusing on two main questions: whether Chechnya would remain politically stable, and who might the next leader of the region be.

Healthy or not?

In Chechnya, the news of Kadyrov’s illness has been the subject of rumors for some time now. Since the beginning of the summer, he has conspicuously disappeared from Chechen state TV, where he typically took up 70-95% of airtime. Instead, reporters who would normally cover Kadyrov’s every move, along with members of his big family, dug up archived material. His public appearances became rare, which made it hard for the reporters tasked with downplaying the symptoms of his condition, such as a swollen face, squinted eyes and mumbling speech. Observers also noticed labored breathing and sluggish movements, as if he were taking strong medication.

Moreover, live government meetings, usually energetically led by Kadyrov and aired on Grozny TV, also became more and more infrequent. Many have speculated that the involvement of Kadyrov’s teenage sons in these meetings represents an attempt to secure their positions in the government before his inevitable passing. According to reports from Novaya Gazeta, citing sources within his inner circle, Kadyrov is suffering from an undisclosed “serious disease” with a fatality rate of 30%.

Rumors give way to speculation about Kadyrov’s death

Headlines such as “Kadyrov seriously ill,” “Kadyrov in intensive care in Moscow” and “Kadyrov in a coma“ appeared in the news. For instance, on September 15 Andrii Yusov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence, declared that Kadyrov was in critical condition.

Kadyrov himself and his propaganda machine denied this. At the beginning of the summer, he laughed off reports that he had health problems, claiming that he was full of energy and “sorry to disappoint” those who hoped that he was terminally ill. Later, when his condition apparently worsened, Grozny TV reporters circulated video footage that purportedly disproved rumors about his deteriorating health, doing their best to portray the Chechen leader as still robust, if somewhat bloated and sluggish.

However, the Chechen oppositional Telegram channel NIYSO (“Justice”), run from abroad, has pointed out that these videos were either archival or filmed in ways that concealed Kadyrov’s health issues, calling the arguments put forth by Chechen propaganda unconvincing. After Grozny TV aired footage of Kadyrov sitting in a Moscow hospital near his ailing uncle, NIYSO wondered whether his uncle’s health was indeed so important that he had to abandon the region and his family for so long.
Ramzan Kadyrov's eldest son Akhmad. Source: Facebook
What’s next?

True or not, the reports regarding Kadyrov’s health have raised a legitimate question: “what if…?” Below I shall weigh what Kadyrov’s death might mean for Chechnya and consider various theories suggested by political commentators.

First and foremost, it is improbable that Kadyrov’s death would trigger an uprising or reignite a movement for Chechnya’s independence. Similarly, it is unlikely that Kadyrov was poisoned by the FSB.

The autocratic system established by Ramzan Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, and further developed into a kind of totalitarianism by Ramzan himself is formidable and stable enough to quell potential dissent or rebellion. This stability is of utmost importance to the Kremlin. Therefore, it is implausible that the FSB would eliminate Kadyrov even if he is an occasional irritant and some of his actions create problems for the Kremlin – a recent example is Kadyrov’s public approval of his son Adam beating a prisoner.

Concerning the possibility of an uprising, several factors should be kept in mind. Firstly, Chechnya lacks a critical mass of people willing to engage in one, even though many Chechens might be dissatisfied with the current situation in the region. Those who might consider taking up arms are already fighting against Russia in Ukraine. However, these fighters would face significant obstacles in taking their fight back to the North Caucasus.
“Thus, it seems improbable that a large-scale insurrection in Chechnya would be instigated by proponents of Chechen independence, whether from inside or outside the region.”
However, some instability could arise from conflicts between potential candidates to replace Kadyrov, should they fail to reach a consensus on who should be in charge.

Among the most likely successors are three of Kadyrov’s closest allies: Adam Delimkhanov, a member of the Duma; Magomed Daudov, the speaker of Chechnya’s parliament; and Abuzayed Vismuradov, the vice prime minister of Chechnya. As touched on above, Kadyrov seems to be attempting to ensure that his eldest son Akhmad succeeds him, though in the event of Ramzan’s sudden death this would be problematic.

Such a move would require unwavering loyalty to Akhmad from Ramzan’s allies, political acumen on Akhmad’s part, strong support from Putin and the readiness of Ramzan’s security forces to defend the new leader. However, Akhmad, named after Ramzan’s late father, is still a teenager, which renders him ineligible for the top political post for the next 12 years, despite his current official role as an aide to his father and head of the regional branch of the so-called Movement of the First (Dvizhenie pervykh), a state-sponsored youth organization.

Appointing an eligible figurehead while keeping the younger Kadyrov as an “heir to the throne” would introduce significant uncertainty, which makes this a scenario disfavored by the Kremlin. Arguably, a similar arrangement was implemented in Chechnya after the assassination of Ramzan’s father in 2004; however, at that time Ramzan was already 28 years old and had been leading a major military unit for some time. Despite his limited political acumen, he secured Putin’s support by demonstrating unwavering loyalty and, when he became president of Chechnya in 2007, he had his potential rivals physically eliminated. Adam Delimkhanov, whom Kadyrov has occasionally mentioned as a potential successor, played a pivotal role in that process. Thus, I shall start the discussion of possible candidates with him.

Possible successors

Delimkhanov, like Daudov and Vismuradov, appears to possess all the attributes necessary to step into Kadyrov’s shoes. In the 1990s, he was involved in the fight for Chechen independence before swiftly switching sides with the onset of the Second Chechen War in 1999.

From that point, he remained a loyal member of Akhmad Kadyrov’s team, initially heading a special forces unit before transitioning to political roles.
“Since 2007, Delimkhanov has been a member of the Duma, though he rarely participates in legislative work, leading many to believe that his primary role is to serve as Kadyrov’s envoy for ‘special assignments’ both in Russia and abroad.”
Vladimir Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov and Alu Alkhanov in 2004. After Ramzan Kadyrov's father Akhmad was assassinated in May 2004, Ramzan was too young to run for president of Chechnya. Alkhanov, supported by the Kremlin, was elected in order to hold the post until 2007, when Ramzan could legally become head of Chechnya. Source: Wiki Commons
These assignments, according to numerous reports, often involve racketeering and killing Kadyrov’s rivals and critics. For example, Chechen oppositional figure Ibragim Yangulbaev claims that Delimkhanov personally killed Salman Tepsurkaev, a 19-year-old boy who was abducted and tortured for publicly criticizing Kadyrov in 2020.

It is universally believed that Delimkhanov was also involved in the assassination of the leader of the independent Chechen military unit Gorets (“mountaineer”) Movladi Baisarov, who had refused to pledge loyalty to Ramzan Kadyrov even though he had served his father. Baisarov, an FSB colonel who was honored by Putin personally with a visit to him in the hospital after he was wounded in 2002 while guarding Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated in Moscow during a special operation allegedly orchestrated by Delimkhanov in 2006.

Delimkhanov is universally believed to have been involved in the killings of the Yamadayev brothers, who were potential rivals of Kadyrov. Recall that Duma Deputy Ruslan Yamadayev was gunned down in the center of Moscow, while his younger brother Sulim, who fled the country out of fear for his life, was subsequently killed in Dubai. Local police directly accused Delimkhanov of involvement in these crimes.
This record makes Delimkhanov not only a proven criminal but also a plausible candidate to replace Kadyrov. Despite his limited political activity while in the Duma, he has demonstrated a willingness to carry out extrajudicial “orders” and thus can be easily controlled by the Kremlin through blackmailing. His brothers and close relatives, who command various military units within Kadyrov’s forces, further strengthen his candidacy.

The second likely candidate is Magomed Daudov, known by the nickname “Lord.” His biography mirrors that of Delimkhanov, as Daudov also switched allegiances at the start of the Second Chechen War, which, according to one version, earned him his moniker. Though Daudov’s government career has not gone beyond the borders of Chechnya, within the region he has been a most intimidating figure. Currently serving as the speaker of Chechnya’s regional parliament, Daudov is responsible for controlling Chechen social media, both domestically and internationally.

Daudov played a role in the brutal persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya and was rumored to be involved in the assassination of Kadyrov’s opponents in Europe. Like Delimkhanov, he holds the title of Hero of Russia (one of the highest awards in Russia) and is under EU and US sanctions. However, he has neither a military unit under his direct control nor close relatives in command of military units to support him in the event of an internal conflict or a palace coup. While the team around him is substantial, its loyalty has limits, and it is doubtful that he could count on unwavering support.

The final candidate on this list is Abuzayed Vismuradov, known in the region by his nom de guerre “Patriot.” In terms of character and behavior, out of the three candidates he most closely resembles Ramzan Kadyrov. In fact, Vismuradov and Ramzan were classmates and friends, and there is no evidence to suggest that “Patriot” ever betrayed him.

Unlike the other candidates, Vismuradov is not a “Hero of Russia.” Neither does he carry the baggage of fighting for the separatist side in the First Chechen War. He was and has remained aligned with the Kadyrovs. His primary responsibility is Ramzan’s security – commanding a capable military unit that Ramzan can trust and rely on. Out of the three candidates, Vismuradov is the least outspoken and likely the most ruthless. Though he rarely makes public threats, which Delimkhanov and Daudov are notorious for, it is widely known that he has been behind many cases of abduction and torture in Chechnya.

None of the discussed candidates are direct relatives of Kadyrov, but all of them possess the characteristics required to replace him: cruelty, unwavering loyalty to Putin and a resolve to hold on to power. Still, it is Putin who will have the final say.

No talk of succession in Chechnya

In Chechnya, there is a conspicuous lack of open discussion regarding Kadyrov’s health or candidates to replace him.
“Even those who genuinely support Kadyrov and wish him well do not express their sympathy openly – the official reports of his good health make such sentiment inappropriate.”
Kadyrov Square in Chechnya's capital Grozny. Source: Wiki Commons
Instead, people are patiently waiting for change, which means different things for different people. Taxi drivers hope for regulatory relief and the chance to make more money; hedonists yearn for the possibility of openly purchasing liquor; the elite anticipates a redistribution of wealth; businessmen await an end to mandatory tribute payments to the Kadyrov Foundation, long a “legitimate” form of government extortion.

The only arena where Chechens are engaging in discussions about Kadyrov’s health is internet forums in which they can hide their real identities. Those who oppose Kadyrov are actively searching for and highlighting signs that confirm his deteriorating health, while official propaganda is working diligently to persuade everyone that Kadyrov is not only well but perhaps healthier than ever. Regardless of the actual situation, it is prudent to now consider the “what if” scenario. Still, unforeseen developments, such as instability in Russia, the end of the war in Ukraine and/or Putin’s own disappearance from the scene, could dramatically skew the analysis presented above.
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