The Kremlin's hand-picked prime minister of Chechnya has submitted his resignation, clearing the way for a possible replacement by acting prime minister, and local strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Chechnya's Moscow-backed president, Alu Alkhanov, says health problems stemming from a November car crash prevent Sergei Abramov from returning to the prime minister post.
Mr. Alkhanov declined to say who might succeed Mr. Abramov, who served two years, but speculation has quickly centered on acting Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov.
The surviving son of Chechnya's former pro-Moscow ruler, Mr. Kadyrov controls a vast network of irregular troops and security forces, whom rights activists allege indiscriminately use murder, kidnapping, and torture to silence their opponents.
Mr. Kadyrov denies the charges. But wrapping up a visit to Chechnya, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia late last week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, told reporters residents of the Caucasus mountains regions of southern Russia are still subjected to, what she calls, a climate of fear.
"I left the Chechen Republic with the distinct impression that despite ongoing political and physical reconstruction, the republic has still not been able to move from a society ruled by force to one governed by the rule of law," she said.
Arbour declined, when pressed, to single out Kadyrov forces for blame. But she says weak law enforcement does play a role, in her view, in fostering continued instability in the region.
"Two phenomena, in my view, are particularly disturbing: One is the prevalence of the use of torture to extract confessions and information and the second one is the intimidation of those who make complaints against public officials," Arbour said. "In my opinion, there is no doubt that these phenomena are more than allegations, but have in fact considerable basis in reality."
Russian President Vladimir Putin says the decade-old conflict in Chechnya, pitting Russian federal forces against Chechen separatists, is largely contained. But Russian news reports still cite near daily deaths from low-level, guerrilla-style violence.
Meanwhile, participants at a seminar on Chechnya urged Europe not to be fooled by Russian claims that Moscow is fighting a war against terror in Chechnya.
The seminar was held in Vilnius, Lithuania to mark the 62nd anniversary of what Chechens call Deportation Day. It remembers February 23, 1944, when almost half a million Chechens and Ingush were forcibly moved to Central Asia on the orders of Josef Stalin.