To hear Vladimir Putin tell it, he learned something about Chechnya last week. After a surprise helicopter tour of the breakaway republic, the Russian President returned to Moscow and informed his Cabinet that the capital, Grozny, looked "horrible." He apparently didn't mention that it looks that way because the Russian military has periodically pounded it with bombs and artillery shells as part of the Kremlin's campaign to quell a separatist uprising in the region. With last week's assassination of Moscow's hand-picked Chechen President, Akhmad Kadyrov, Putin might also have remarked that his strategy for pacifying Chechnya looked pretty horrible too. But Kadyrov's murder gives Putin a choice: he can launch yet another crackdown or finally try a new approach. Judging from his comments last week, he's not sure which way to go.
Kadyrov, who fought alongside rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov before shifting his allegiance to the Russians in 1999, came to power last October in an election the human-rights organization Moscow Helsinki Group described as "fraudulent." His installation was crucial to Putin's "Chechenization" policy; Kadyrov would take the pressure off Russian troops by using his private army, known as the Kadyrovtsi, to hunt down the rebels. But Kadyrov had enemies of his own, from committed separatists who regarded him as a Kremlin stooge to some Russian security and military officials wary of his growing autonomy. One of those foes killed him on May 9 by placing a bomb inside a concrete pillar beneath the stands at Grozny's Dynamo Stadium, where the former mufti was attending a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Russia's victory over Nazi Germany. Six others died in the blast and up to 89 were injured, including General Valery Baranov, the commander of Russian troops in Chechnya.
Putin's immediate response was to vow that "retribution is unavoidable for those whom we are fighting." But after his trip to Grozny, he took a different tack. He ordered 1,125 more Chechen police to the capital, but also announced that a government team would visit the region to assess its social and economic needs. Alexander Veshnyakov, chairman of the Central Election Commission, confirmed that fresh presidential elections would take place by Sept. 5. The Kremlin's new tone prompted hopes that another round of retribution might be avoided. Putin "could really go down in history as the person who ended this long tragedy," says Akhmed Zakayev, Maskhadov's representative in London. To do that, Zakayev and others say, Putin should negotiate with Maskhadov an unlikely scenario given that the Kremlin has branded Maskhadov a terrorist.
Despite Putin's restraint, many people believe more violence is inevitable. "No more bloodshed in Chechnya? That's completely ridiculous," says Anne Nivat, author of Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya. "It's been going on for 10 years and the death of Kadyrov won't change a thing." Perhaps not, if Kadyrov's 27-year-old son, Ramzan, takes over where his father left off. Ramzan, a boxing enthusiast, is head of the kadyrovtsi, which stands accused of a series of human-rights violations against civilians and political opponents. "The [kadyrovtsi] is notorious for kidnappings, brutality and tortures, and is universally hated by the population," a top Russian law-enforcement official told Time before Kadyrov's assassination.
Chechens loyal to the Kadyrov clan have asked Putin to change the regional constitution which states that presidential candidates must be at least 30 so Ramzan can run, and some regard his appointment as First Deputy Prime Minister as a sign he's being groomed for the job. "Ramzan's promotion is right," says Edi Isayev, an advisor at the office of Chechnya's representative to Moscow. "He is fearless like his father. He is reliable and has carried out all his tasks excellently." Putin hasn't yet responded to the Chechen appeal, but Veshnyakov said there would be no change to the Chechen constitution. "Chechnya is not some sultanate," says an official in Putin's administration. "There will be elections. The Kremlin may or may not love the winner, but that's not the point. The main thing is to create the basis for the continuation of work toward democracy." That would be a change for the better.