The Kremlin's plan for stabilizing war-torn Chechnya is in tatters after a powerful bomb killed its main mover, pro-Moscow Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, at a ceremony in the regional capital Grozny to mark the 59th anniversary of the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany.
The independent Ekho Moskvi radio station quoted a spokesman for Chechnya's beleaguered separatist rebels as taking responsibility for the attack, which shattered the VIP reviewing stand at Grozny's new Dynamo Stadium just as Victory Day ceremonies were getting under way. Sunday's blast also killed five others according to press-time reports from Russia's Interfax news agency. The commander of Russia's 70,000 occupation forces in Chechnya, Valery Baranov, was also reported to be critically injured.
The explosion occurred at the exact moment President Vladimir Putin was addressing a similar victory rally and military parade on Moscow's Red Square; the brutal symbolism was likely intentional, experts say. The sudden loss of Mr. Kadyrov, who was elected in Kremlin-managed polls last October, throws into confusion Mr. Putin's policy of "Chechenizing" the nearly five-year-old war and threatens to trigger a fresh wave of repression, revenge-seeking, and rebel violence in the tiny, mainly Muslim republic.
"This bombing on Russia's most important holiday is an open personal challenge to Putin," says Irina Zvegelskaya, an expert with the independent Center for Political and International Studies in Moscow. "It shows that no security measures are ever enough. Even being the Kremlin's selected man is no protection."
A former rebel, leader of one of Chechnya's largest clans, and a Muslim mufti, the burly and bearded Kadyrov was tapped by the Kremlin four years ago to head Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration. By most accounts, Kadyrov moved with tough efficiency to stack local government with his own loyalists and used his private 3,000-man security force, headed by his son Ramzan, to intimidate and even kill opponents. The Russian human rights group Memorial blames Kadyrov for the disappearance of scores of Chechen politicians and public figures.
The Kremlin intervened to ensure that Kadyrov, lagging in opinion polls, would prevail in last October's presidential elections by pressuring opposition candidates to leave the race. In one case, front-runner candidate Aslan Aslakhanov withdrew after being offered a Kremlin job by Putin. Two others were removed from the ballot by Chechnya's Kadyrov-controlled Supreme Court, with no demur from Moscow.
"This blow is comparable to the Americans losing their top administrator in Iraq at one moment," says Valery Tishkov, a Chechnya expert with the official Institute of Ethnology in Moscow. "It's a huge loss for the process of restoration [of federal rule] in Chechnya."
Rebel activity has steadily diminished over the past year, even though terrorist strikes - including a couple of deadly suicide bombings in Moscow - have continued to occur. Kadyrov recently boasted that several key rebel leaders had defected to his side, bringing their fighters with them.
"Kadyrov made himself indispensible to the Kremlin," says Ms. Zvegelskaya. "He wasn't much loved or respected by the majority of Chechens, but there is no doubt that he imposed a kind of order in Chechnya. He did this by using violence, oppression and other very unpopular measures, but he was able to deliver stability. With him gone, the whole program is in crisis."
Kadyrov had been the target of frequent assassination plots in the past. At a religious festival in Chechnya last year, a female suicide bomber blew herself up after getting close to his entourage; she killed 14 other people but missed Kadyrov. Chechen officials told news agencies that Sunday's bomb eluded security checks because it had been installed inside the structure, beneath a layer of fresh concrete.
The Kremlin may have regarded Kadyrov as a "necessary transition figure" in the long, brutal march toward restoring peace and constitutional rule in Chechnya, Zvegelskaya says. "But now he's gone, and his work is, to say the least, unfinished," she adds.
Prime Minister Sergei Abramov, an ethnic Russian appointed by the Kremlin, will temporarily take over Kadyrov's duties, according to Russian news agencies. Mr. Abramov will be tasked with holding Kadyrov's administrative machine together and ensuring stability until the Kremlin can find a pro-Moscow Chechen with sufficient stature - and credibility among the republic's fractious clans - to take over.
Former President Aslan Maskhadov, elected in 1997 in the only Chechen vote ever recognized by the international community, could reemerge as a negotiating partner. However, that would require the Kremlin to reverse past refusals to deal with Mr. Maskhadov, a man they have branded a terrorist.
Analysts do not think Kadyrov's son, who has earned a reputation for cruelty, is a likely candidate.
"Whatever you can say about Kadyrov, he was a powerful figure," says Zvegelskaya. "Ramzan carries very little personal authority and could not realistically fill his father's shoes."
Speaking to Ramzan in the Kremlin Sunday, Putin hailed his father as a "heroic man" and pledged that "justice will take the upper hand and retribution [for Kadyrov's murder] is inevitable."
But some experts warn Chechnya could dissolve into chaos, with federal forces trying to crack down, Kadyrov's relatives seeking "blood revenge," and rebels moving to exploit the power vacuum. "This tragedy will probably lead to more violence, arrests, and pressure all around," says Zvegelskaya.
After putting all of its political eggs in the Kadyrov basket, the Kremlin may be at a loss to replace him. "The federal authorities invested so much in Kadyrov, and that makes the task of finding someone to take his place very difficult," says Mr. Tishkov. "The process of creating legitimacy may have to be started all over again."