In recent months, the health of Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has become one of the main political issues in Russia. The Chechen republic and its leadership have always been a black box, so information about Kadyrov’s serious kidney problems and even his death have been circulating in the form of rumours. These rumours were confirmed by indirect evidence: for example, at some point the head of Chechnya, who loves PR and enjoys publicity, stopped making regular pubic appearances. For instance, he ignored a meeting of the regions of the North Caucasus district, held a few weeks ago in Derbent, Dagestan, with the chairwoman of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko at the helm. Moreover, Kadyrov, always fit and athletic, has put on a lot of weight and his face showed clear signs of swelling. These health problems meant that the Kremlin was likely to try to replace Kadyrov. The Chechen leader’s resignation is a subject of regular discussions in Moscow. Among those lobbying for it are the so-called «old Chekists» on the Security Council and some other Russian security officials who remember Kadyrov’s involvement in separatist formations. Kadyrov’s own tactics in such situations have long been tried and tested. He provokes scandals by drawing attention to himself, oftentimes skating on thin ice as he did, for example, in 2021, when Chechen security forces came to the Nizhny Novgorod region and seized Zarema Musayeva, the mother of three Chechen opposition activists, in her home [and forcibly returned her to Grozny where she was sentenced to 5 ½ years in penal colony]. Such escapades are often criticised even by representatives of the power vertical. Kadyrov then organised rallies in Chechnya attended by thousands of people demonstrating their loyalty and support for the Chechen leader. In this way, he challenged Vladimir Putin to dialogue and forced the president to speak in his favour in order to fend off the attacks of his critics.
This is exactly the kind of situation we are witnessing right now. Health problems are a good reason to lobby for Kadyrov’s resignation and to show Putin that the head of Chechnya is too distracted to be able to take care of his difficult region. Realising the gravity of the situation, Kadyrov began preparing for the worst-case scenario: his own resignation and the subsequent appointment of a man from outside his clan. Kadyrov’s family members have long been promoted or given positions in the region’s governing bodies. This was probably done in the expectation that when a new head of state was appointed, he would not risk challenging the representatives of the Kadyrov family, and they would be given bread and butter jobs. The appointment of relatives became an insurance policy, but on top of that Ramzan Kadyrov showed no intention of quitting or giving up his position. First, he asked friendly and status-conscious representatives of the power vertical to meet with him in public to prove that he could still function as the head of the region and that there was nothing seriously wrong with his health. Information about the meeting between Emergencies Minister Alexander Kurenkov and Kadyrov appeared on the Emergencies Ministry website (but was taken down later), and Telegram channels published footage of the Chechen leader’s meeting with the head of the Russian Federal Guard, Viktor Zolotov. Secondly, the Chechen leader resorted to the usual tactics of provocations. Kadyrov posted a video on his Telegram channel showing one of his sons, 15-year-old Adam, beating Nikita Zhuravel, who was charged with blasphemy («‘insulting the religious feelings of believers») after he had burnt a Quoran having been allegedely ordered to do so by Ukrainian security services. Information about the beating itself has long been known, but Kadyrov documented the assault and endorsed it. His actions provoked predictable criticism (including criticism voiced by members of the «United Russia» party): no one has ever publicly violated Russian law in such a brazen way, and no one has shown such smuggness at doing so. There have always been plenty of instances of illegal wanton violence in Chechnya used against those that Kadyrov’s regime deemed undesirable or dangerous. However, until now Ramzan Kadyrov has always publicly denied them. Now he has practically issued a manifesto: «My people and I are really entitled to do whatever we want and I will not hide it any longer.» He was well aware that such actions would certainly be opposed by the security forces (albeit behind the scenes)) who do not want to share their monopoly on violence with anyone, and that the incident is certain to trigger a public debate. Kadyrov raised the stakes in an unprecedented way. Not only did he seek to insure a personal meeting with Vladimir Putin against the background of his own problems, but he also wanted to use this meeting to legitimise his special status and to demand it from the system.
Ramzan Kadyrov has once again achieved what he set out to do. He has secured a meeting with Vladimir Putin. The president praised him for the «development of the region» and the contribution of Chechen battalions to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, pretending that there was nothing reprehensible in the actions of Kadyrov’s son and the Chechen leader himself, and if so, there was no need to talk about it. Kadyrov, who constantly swears allegiance to the president and describes himself as his «loyal foot soldier», has essentially forced Putin to swear an oath of allegiance to himself. The video of the meeting did not dispel doubts about Kadyrov’s well-being: he is unsteady on his feet and his speech is slurred. But it doesn’t matter, because now the Chechen leader’s detractors know that Putin is satisfied with Kadyrov’s health, which means that he will stay in his office. Kadyrov has managed to amplify his position, but he has weakened his main patron by making him look like a man who is easily and quickly susceptible to blackmail. By boosting his own standing within the system, the Chechen leader has in turn contributed to its destabilisation, because Kadyrov’s enemies in the influential Russian security forces will be clearly unhappy with the way Putin has handled the situation, and their dissatisfaction is bound to grow in the future.
The Kremlin has decided to mark the anniversary of the annexation of Ukrainian territories with a huge concert in Moscow’s Red Square. The event is designed to demonstrate once again the nationwide support for Vladimir Putin and his actions, and to bolster the presidential election campaign that has already begun. According to the Kremlin’s political bloc, it should consist of a series of festivities — the All-Russian Forum, which will begin at the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy on 4 November, the International Festival of Students, the opening of infrastructure facilities and, of course, free concerts. The events with a patriotic undertone and Putin’s speeches are meant to attract the public thanks to the participation of popular singers, such as Grigory Leps, Shaman and the band «Lyube». However, according to media reports, the organisers are once again forced to recruit paid extras to attend these concerts and make it compulsory for public sector employees to be present. Ordinary Russians are in no hurry to express their patriotic feelings and love for Putin without material incentives involved: that much has long been clear. But the line-up also shows that even artists who support the war or travel to Donbass with concerts or «humanitarian aid convoys» are in no hurry to go on stage «for Putin». Thus, Roman Bilyk, the front-man of the Russian rock band Zveri («Beasts»), who recently played a concert for Russian soldiers in Ukraine, is not on the list of expected performers. Neither is the pro-government band «Chaif» along with many other Russian rock-bands, expected to appear. Concert after concert is filled with the same performers associated with the Kremlin: Shaman, Gazmanov, «Lyube», Leps and several lesser-known singers, while others prefer to stir clear of such events. For them, a clear association with the country’s leadership seems to be a disadvantage rather than a bonus, as it could alienate some fans. Gazmanov, «Lyube» and others have chosen to work for the state, which pays them generously. Other showbiz figures prefer to focus on the business aspect of show-business for the time being. They are not altogether averse to the idea of interacting with the state, but they do not want to be completely co-opted by it. In this sense, support for the war becomes a fairly small price to pay because it can be quite sincere, and therefore generate some understanding among fans that love this particular rock or pop star for their creativity, not their beliefs. Appearing regularly at pro-government events is seen as a sign of subterfuge and a willingness to sell out to the regime, which can alienate some fans, so artists who focus on a live base tend to avoid them. This urge to distance oneself from the regime may be an indication that a significant part of the Russian audience is unwilling to forgive their idols for openly supporting Putin because they do not support him either.