Ramzan Kadyrov, the man President Vladimir Putin picked more than a decade ago to rule the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, is a rare case of a low-level provincial official overshadowing Moscow-based politicians and celebrities.
The Chechen ruler has become something of a media star in Russia: just in the past month, he has launched his own reality TV show, appeared at an official ceremony wearing a medieval suit of armor, and attended a mixed martial arts tournament in the Chechen capital Grozny featuring fights involving boys 10 years old and younger.
All of this has triggered a tsunami of public chatter in mainstream and social media, distracting public attention from such things as Russia's deteriorating economy and its increasing international isolation. But it remains unclear whether Moscow sees such distractions as useful, or if Kadyrov's outrageous behavior and allegations he was behind a string of assassinations have undercut his Kremlin support.
People hold banners of Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov, as they take part in a rally marking the 13th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of Russian region of Chechnya, in the regional capital of Grozny, Russia on March 23, 2016.
Antics help overshadow Russia's more pressing problems
Russian opposition leaders and independent media portray Kadyrov as a highly corrupt dictator, mass abuser of human rights, destroyer of media freedom, and a political liability who is falling out of Putin’s favor and will soon be replaced. Some observers say the antipathy toward Kadyrov is shared by some top security officials, making the Chechen leader an increasing liability.
Still, official Russian media continue to praise him as a peacekeeper who has transformed Chechnya from a territory virtually flattened by bombardment during the federal government's two wars against separatist and Islamist insurgents, into a region whose capital boasts gleaming new skyscrapers and the largest mosque in Europe.
More recently, it is Kadyrov’s publicity-seeking antics that are drawing attention.
In September, several days before he won 98 percent support in his reelection to a third term, the Russian state TV channel Rossiya 1, launched "Komanda" (The Team), a reality television program similar to The Apprentice, the hit American reality TV series that starred Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. "Komanda" features 16 contestants competing to be Kadyrov's assistant. “What are you prepared to do to be with Ramzan?”, the show's host, TV presenter Boris Korchevnikov, asked them on the inaugural episode. "Anything!”, the participants responded.
One day after his reelection, Kadyrov marched into an official ceremony honoring the Day of the Chechen Woman wearing a medieval-style suit of armor, with a helmet looming over his red-bearded face, a sword on his side and a spear in his left hand.
The “Kadyrov-in-armor” story seized the headlines of Russia's mainstream and social media for days, overshadowing other issues. Less than a week later, Dutch investigators issued a report stating that MH17, the Malaysian passenger jet that crashed in Ukraine two years ago, was downed by a Russian-made missile fired from territory in eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists. But while the Dutch report was making headlines world-wide, the Russian public was focused on Kadyrov, not on the role Russia played in the downing of MH17, which killed all 298 people on board.
A few days after that, Chechen TV went live with a celebration of Kadyrov's 40th birthday that featured a mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament involving boys 10 years old and younger. The boys did not wear protective gear or helmets and looked particularly small in the large, rope-encircled professional ring. Three of Kadyrov’s sons won the competition and were named Chechen champions. Commentators noted that Kadyrov’s sons sucker punched several of their rivals, knocking some of them out, which the referee ignored.
Paul Goble, a former U.S. State Department official and expert on Russia, compared the Chechen leader's behavior to that of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the veteran Russian ultra-nationalist legislator known for outrageous comments and behavior in parliament and on TV, as well as loyalty to the Kremlin.
"I think Kadyrov is doing all this because he wants to attract attention in ways that don't threaten anyone," Goble told VOA. "In some ways, he is behaving like Zhirinovsky, offending many but not in a way that undermines his ties with Putin."
Emil Aslan Souleimanov of the Institute of International Studies at Prague's Charles University said Kadyrov "serves as an embodiment of modern orientalism, both reviled and revered, that scares people and makes them laugh, based on the actual circumstances." This, he added, helps "deflect attention from pressing problems."
Still, not everyone is amused. While the living standards of average Russians drop, Chechnya continues to receive huge federal subsidies, which have reportedly enriched Kadyrov and his inner circle. The Chechen leader has a palatial home and a collection of luxury cars.
FILE - Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov speaks as he attends celebrations marking Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Chechnya's provincial capital Grozny, Russia.
Abuses, killings undermine Kremlin support
Meanwhile, Kadyrov and his allies have been accused of involvement in mass human rights abuses inside Chechnya, and in the murder of opponents in Moscow. That includes last year's killing of former deputy prime minister and leading Putin critic Boris Nemtsov just steps away from the Kremlin, as well as killings in Western Europe.
In a national poll conducted October 21-24 by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent national polling agency, respondents were asked to name the five-or-six politicians or public figures they most trust. Only 3 percent of the respondents named Kadyrov, although that was up 1 percent from last month. (The Chechen leader, it should be noted, was rated as trustworthy as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.) Fifty-two percent picked Putin
Kadyrov's MMA tournament for preteens provoked another wave of discussion in the Russian press and on social media, with famous athletes, actors and politicians, voicing criticism. “Needless to say that kids under the age of 12 cannot even attend MMA fights (in Russia) as spectators, but here we had little ones as young as eight beating each other up in front of happy adults," said Fedor Emelianenko, a former champion MMA fighter who is currently president of the Russian MMA Union. He called the Grozny tournament "unacceptable."
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, left, congratulates Uzbekistan's "White Tyson" Ruslan Chagaev, right, while celebrating his victory over American Fres Oquendo after their WBA heavyweight boxing championship fight at Ahmat Arena, in Grozny, Russia.
Kadyrov's associates and supporters responded by vowing to punish the critics, including Emelianenko. The Kremlin ultimately weighed in, criticizing the underage MMA bout, after which Kadyrov played "peacemaker," asking his followers to stop verbally attacking Emelianenko. Still, several days later, the Russian MMA Union chief's teenage daughter was punched by an unidentified assailant on a Moscow street.
The controversy that erupted over Kadyrov's underage fight club drowned out coverage and discussion of other issues and events, including the tenth anniversary of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the award winning journalist and critic of human rights abuses in Russia, particularly in Kadyrov-ruled Chechnya. Politkovskaya was shot to death in her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006.
Independent media predicts end near for Kadyrov's rule
In her last interview -- with Radio-Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Russian service just two days before her killing -- Politkovskaya called Kadyrov a "coward armed to the teeth and surrounded by security guards," and said she hoped to see him "someday sitting in the dock, in a trial that meets the strictest legal standards, with all of his crimes listed and investigated." Politkovskaya's colleagues blamed her murder on Kadyrov, and while five men were eventually convicted for killing her, the person or persons who ordered or paid for the murder remain at large.
Politkovskaya worked for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's few remaining independent media outlets which, just prior to the tenth anniversary of her death, published a long piece on the situation in Chechnya. It reported that there was a failed plot to assassinate Kadyrov earlier this year involving members of his clan -- a closed circle of blood relatives and kin – as well as some of his closest associates.
Novaya Gazeta predicted that Kadyrov’s time as Chechnya's ruler is running out because he has not honored his de facto deal with the Kremlin to keep Chechnya under Moscow's control in return for virtually unlimited financial support. Kadyrov, it concluded, fought against Chechen separatism for ten years only to create a separatism of his own.
Since its publication in early October, observers inside and outside Russia have been discussing the Novaya Gazeta article and its assertion that Kadyrov's days are numbered, with some analysts even floating the names of possible candidates to replace him as Chechen leader.
Kadyrov vs. FSB
Mark Kramer, program director for the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told VOA via e-mail that the wave of media discussion in Russia speculating about Kadyrov's possible removal is likely connected to a power struggle between the Chechen leader and the Federal Security Service, or FSB -- Russia's principal security agency.
“It all began when Kadyrov started squeezing the federal MVD (Interior Ministry) and FSB out of Chechnya and subordinating all security forces in Chechnya to his direct control," he said. "Those efforts, and Kadyrov's audacity in orchestrating assassinations on the streets of Moscow, have created tensions and often deep antagonism with the federal security structures.”
British journalist Oliver Bullough, author of the book "Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus," told VOA that "almost every conceivable rival" of Kadyrov "has been killed during his period in power," adding that he has "no doubt" the Chechen ruler is "hated" within the FSB.
Russian investigative reporter and blogger Oleg Kashin thinks Kadyrov’s foes are “mid-level FSB officers, capable of launching informational campaigns against him."
FILE - CEO of Russian oil company Rosneft Igor Sechin.
Kramer believes that Kadyrov has other opponents at the top of the Russian power structure, such as Igor Sechin, a close Putin associate who is the CEO of Rosneft, Russia's giant state oil company. Sechin has been described as “Russia’s second-most powerful person” after Putin.
“Sechin repeatedly tried to end the oil transit arrangements Kadyrov has worked out and to bring them under Rosneft's control," Kramer said.
Still, Sechin seemingly lost the decade-long battle with Kadyrov for control over Chechnya's oil transit and refinery facilities this past January, when Putin decided in favor of Kadyrov’s claims granting Chechnya ownership of the republic's oil assets.
Kashin doubts that FSB officials opposed to Kadyrov have "direct access" to the only person who could possibly remove him -- President Vladimir Putin.
“Kadyrov knows that as long as he retains the support of the guy at the very top, he'll be safe” despite the efforts of his powerful foes, said Harvard's Mark Kramer.
Were Putin to decide “it's time to get rid of Kadyrov, he could get rid of him without sparking a new Russian-Chechen war," he said.
However, Kramer added that Putin fears removing Kadyrov would destabilize Chechnya, and “the radical Islamic insurgents would undoubtedly try to take advantage of it and would flock home from Syria and Iraq.”