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Apprentice: Warlord Edition? Chechen strongman takes reality TV turn

On the show, 16 candidates from across Russia compete for a spot on the staff of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's flamboyant but iron-fisted leader.

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Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov (c.) and his mother, Aymani (2nd r.), register to get ballot papers at a polling station during a parliamentary election in Chechen town of Tzentoroi, Russia, in September 2016.

Musa Sadulayev/AP/File

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These days, reality TV seems to be a viable stepping stone into politics; witness president-elect Donald Trump. But can a strongman make the reverse transition, from political office to reality TV star?

Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's flamboyant but iron-fisted leader, is aiming to find out via his own "Apprentice"-style show.

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Over the past several months, the state-owned Rossiya-1 channel has broadcast five episodes of the strongman's colorful reality show "Komanda" [Team], in which young applicants undergo various ordeals in a bid to win a coveted spot on Mr. Kadyrov's staff. The latest one, broadcast last week, won a respectable 10 percent of audience share, according to Russia's main ratings agency TNS.

It's an unusual career choice for the man who is key to the Kremlin's strategy for keeping the restive republic of Chechnya pacified. But he does tend to get what he wants.

'Chechnya is his stage'

Kadyrov, a former anti-Russian rebel, came to power more than a decade ago, following the assassination of his father by Islamist rebels. The Kremlin handed him near-total power in return for ending the insurgency and imposing pro-Moscow law and order in the tiny, mountainous republic of about 1.5 million. He accomplished that with brutal heavy-handedness, and rebuilt Chechnya's war-ravaged cities thanks to generous subsidies from Moscow.

"After two atrocious and bloody wars, the Kremlin found a way to Chechenize the conflict by giving power to a Chechen who is loyal to Moscow and will keep things under control," says Masha Lipman, editor of Counterpoint, a Moscow-based journal published by George Washington University. "He mostly delivered what was expected of him."

The price of peace was to give Chechnya to an absolute ruler who appears to recognize no limits to his authority. All dissent has disappeared, and human rights workers who tried to document abuses have turned up dead. In defiance of Russia's Constitution, he has imposed Islamic Sharia law on Chechnya's population, forcing women to adopt strict dress codes, allowing polygamy, and even presiding over the marriage last year of a young girl compelled to become the second wife of Kadyrov's police chief.

But he has a sometimes cruelly impish side, as well as a flair for the spotlight that is so over the top it has even attracted enraptured attention from the likes of comedian John Oliver. For years he has displayed this face to the world via his Instagram account (now also in English) which mostly details his daily rounds as Chechen head of state, such as meetings with officials – whom he sometimes schools in the boxing ring – and granting the requests of an endless lineup of supplicants.

He also airs his frequent manly exploits, such as battling a fearsome snake, as well as a multitude of apparent pranks – like the time he dressed in the uniform of a traffic cop, commandeered a police squad car, and roamed the streets of Grozny pulling over startled citizens to enjoy their reactions.

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"This is the recognizable style of an omnipotent ruler, who has no limits on his power," says Ms. Lipman. "He is prone to antics. He can be brutal, but he can also revel in these kinds of performances. Chechnya is his stage, its people are his cast. Of course there is no such thing as privacy, no realm of life where he cannot totally dominate."

The Chechen example?

All this is on display in "Komanda," which appears to be Kadyrov's attempt to move his act from the narrow confines of Chechnya onto a national stage. In the show, 16 candidates from across Russia come to Chechnya to prove themselves worthy. Mostly they seem to just accompany Kadyrov doing his Instagram routine, riding horses, boxing, recounting his war experiences and how he met his wife, dancing at a wedding, and lavishing gifts upon happy children.

But the show's producer, Natalia Nikonova, said that the goal was to show to a nationwide audience the clockwork-like workings of Chechnya under Kadyrov's rule, a place where there is apparently no dissent or social discontent, and everyone lives well.

"[Visiting Chechnya a few years ago] I was struck by how Kadyrov works with his team," she told Teleprogramma, a TV guide. "It is united by common purpose, a group of associates who work with total dedication, understand each other perfectly, are always mobilized and ready to perform any task. This team includes not only Chechens, but people from all over Russia.... The system of social mobility that is broken [in Russia] turns out to work very well in Chechnya. We decided to show how this happens on a national scale."

Experts say that Kadyrov clearly has bigger ambitions than just to be president-for-life of tiny Chechnya, and he may see "Komanda" as his vehicle to big-time Russian politics. However, the Kremlin's present incumbent, Vladimir Putin, has plenty of ways to keep him in his place, as when he left Kadyrov dangling over his own reappointment to the Chechnya job for several weeks earlier this year.

Few analysts think Kadyrov can make the transition to national politics, but they also note that little can be done to control his increasingly erratic behavior in Chechnya.

"Kadyrov is very special, there is no one like him in Russia," says Lipman. "Nominally he is one of 80-plus leaders of Russian regions, but there is not a single other leader who could get away with the things Kadyrov does. He creates facts, and Putin has no choice but to back him up. In this sense, the Kremlin is very much Kadyrov's hostage."