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As Virus Spreads in Russia’s Caucasus, Rumors Swirl Over Strongman’s Health

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MOSCOW — The strongman leader of Chechnya, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin, is hospitalized with possible symptoms of the coronavirus, state-run news agencies say. A spokesman suggests he is just keeping a low profile because he is “thinking.”

Uncertainty over the health of the leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has broad implications, coming just as the virus is shaking the volatile and predominantly Muslim Caucasus region of southern Russia.

Even Chechnya’s very status as part of Russia — at issue in two wars in the post-Soviet era — revolves in no small part on the close ties between Mr. Kadyrov and Mr. Putin.

“This entire system depends on the personal relationship between Putin and Kadyrov,” said Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a specialist on human rights in the region, who is based in St. Petersburg. “It can’t be easily passed on.”

Official numbers are still low — Chechnya has reported 1,046 cases of the virus and 11 deaths — but signs are emerging daily that the toll across the Caucasus is far greater, and growing.

The pandemic appears to be hitting the neighboring republic of Dagestan harder. Mr. Putin held an unusual televised video conference with Dagestani leaders this week, warning that traditional festivities marking the end of Ramadan this weekend posed a threat.

A top cleric, Mufti Akhmad Abdulayev, told Mr. Putin on the call that more than 700 people had died there, including 50 medical workers. “No one is keeping statistics on the people who are dying of illnesses in their homes,” he said. “They die, they are buried according to tradition, and no one counts them.”

Mr. Kadyrov, 43, the governor of the Chechen Republic, has long played an outsize role in the region. His father, Akhmad, fought the Russians during Chechnya’s first bloody war for independence, in the 1990s, then switched sides and backed Mr. Putin in the second Chechen war, in the early 2000s.

After his father was killed by rebels in 2004, Mr. Kadyrov came to symbolize Mr. Putin’s consolidation of domestic power. The Kremlin showered Chechnya with cash, gave Mr. Kadyrov leeway to enforce brutal crackdowns on critics and militants and helped finance his lavish lifestyle.

But Grigory Shvedov, editor of the news outlet Caucasian Knot, which covers the region, said Mr. Kadyrov is not irreplaceable. The Kremlin’s control over Chechnya, he said, depends in large part on the money it pumps into local coffers.

“If Chechnya continues to get its budget subsidies, Chechnya can be led by someone else,” Mr. Shvedov said.

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Credit…Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin

Russia’s two main state-run news agencies, Tass and RIA Novosti, reported on Thursday that Mr. Kadyrov had been taken to a Moscow hospital, possibly with symptoms of the coronavirus. Mr. Kadyrov’s aides issued only cryptic comments afterward.

Dzhambulat Umarov, the Chechen information minister, posted a quotation on Instagram that appeared to be from Mr. Kadyrov and that seemed to ridicule questions about his health, without confirming or denying that he was sick.

“They don’t like it when I’m silent,” Mr. Kadyrov is quoted as saying in Mr. Umarov’s Instagram post. “It’s nothing personal. It’s just that I am silent when I … AM THINKING.”

Mr. Kadyrov had imposed a tough lockdown as the virus began to spread, even closing the borders of his mountainous region of 1.5 million people to the rest of the country.

He called anyone who violated quarantine orders “worse than a terrorist” and said they should be “buried in a hole in the earth,” but he did not stick to social distancing guidelines himself. Visiting a hospital treating coronavirus patients in April, for instance, Mr. Kadyrov did not don a mask when he posed for a group selfie with medical workers.

And when medical workers at one Chechen hospital publicly complained about shortages of protective gear, Mr. Kadyrov called them “provocateurs” who should be fired.

It’s not clear, however, if sowing fear — Mr. Kadyrov’s typical approach to governance — has been sufficient to slow the spread of the virus.

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“The Chechen authorities, in my view, are not prepared to shoot or kidnap people violating quarantine,” Mr. Shvedov said. “Lacking this tool kit, they become less effective.”

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Credit…Musa Sadulayev/Associated Press

Overall, Russia has reported 326,448 coronavirus cases, the second-highest total in the world. The government insists its relatively low death count — 3,249 — is accurate, though overall mortality figures suggest a higher total.

Dagestani officials are increasingly acknowledging that the statistics do not describe the true scale of the outbreak.

“Across Dagestan, one of the most serious problems is that the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths are understated,” a Moscow infectious disease specialist, Dr. Irina Tragira, said in a news release issued by the Dagestani city of Derbent.

As a result, Dr. Tragira said, medication for coronavirus patients is “catastrophically lacking.” She said Dagestan had already recorded 820 pneumonia deaths that had not been classified as coronavirus-related. According to the official count, 65 people have died of the coronavirus in Dagestan.

The toll among medical workers in Dagestan appears to be particularly severe even for Russia, where doctors and nurses have been dying in staggering numbers. Several doctors in Dagestan said in interviews that some residents did not heed warnings to stay away from relatives and funerals until it was too late.

A nephrologist, Dr. Zagidat Amayeva, confided the concern to her daughter weeks before she died of the coronavirus this spring. The patients at her small-town dialysis clinic, Dr. Amayeva said, did not appear to be taking the pandemic seriously even as the government asked people to stay home.

“Most people did not believe all this,” Dr. Amayeva’s daughter, Tamara Aliyeva, said.

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