It often seems like this would be a better world without Vladimir Putin in it. It’s easy to succumb to ideas about his death or removal from office. But who would be likely to succeed him?
One possibility that has been mentioned is Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov is the governor of Chechnya, a part of the Caucasus that was in open revolt against Moscow until Kadyrov came to power. Kadyrov and Putin have been close, although some splits are opening up. Putin has to balance: Kadyrov’s ability to keep Chechnya from blowing up versus his insubordination and building an empire.
The Caucasus is where ISIS is most likely to infiltrate Russia. Chechnya is in the northern part of the Caucasus. Further south are Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, all former Soviet republics. Further south are Turkey and Iran. Syria is not far to the west.
Now that sanctions are being lifted on Iran, there are a number of ways in which Iran might make things more difficult for Russia in the area. Kadyrov can be a gatekeeper in either direction.
For pacifying Chechnya, Putin has given Kadyrov a free hand. Kadyrov is running Chechnya as a fiefdom, making the laws to suit himself and his friends, sometimes in defiance of Russian laws. Kadyrov is suspected to have been behind the murder of Boris Nemtsov, a critic of Putin, on a street very near the Kremlin.
Last week Kadyrov threw his support to the Kremlin against Russian liberals. In a rant published in Izvestia, he called them jackals and accused them of attempting to destroy the country and undermine its constitutional order. He offered to put them in Chechnya’s mental hospitals and to be generous with injections. The accusations and threats are reminiscent of Soviet times. He then orchestrated a large demonstration in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital.
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, trod a fine line, avoiding both fully endorsing Kadyrov’s speech and rejecting it.
Putin and Kadyrov are performing a delicate dance. Putin needs to keep the North Caucasus from blowing up. Kadyrov can do that for Putin, and he is pressing his luck as far as it will go. There is nobody Putin can easily turn to in Chechnya to replace Kadyrov. Both men have shown that they are willing to kill their opposition.
It’s not clear that Kadyrov wants to succeed Putin as President of Russia. He is trying to demonstrate his ability to use Chechnya as a bargaining chip in Russian politics, however. We have not heard anything in the investigation of the murder of Boris Nemtsov in some time. Putin has enough power that Kadyrov must be careful in his ambitions.
But Putin has not arranged for his own successor. Russia nominally has democratic procedures for electing a president, but Putin has extended the boundaries of those procedures. If something happened to Putin, some Russians may see Kadyrov as an appropriate successor. His record so far suggests that he has all Putin’s undesirable traits and more.
Photo: Ramzan Kadyrov, RFERL