Vladimir Putin's Chechen Ally Ramzan Kadyrov Hires Aide Via 'Apprentice'-Style Show

Ramzan Kadyrov
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov before a meeting of the state council at the Kremlin, Moscow, September 18, 2014. He was reelected last year with 98 percent of the vote. Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov describes himself as “a servant of Allah and a soldier of [Vladimir] Putin.” Now he can add reality TV star to his resume, following the season finale of his own Apprentice-style show, in which he appointed a new government aide.

The series, Komanda (meaning ‘Team’), took 17 Russian men and women to Russia’s Chechen Republic in July, where Kadyrov has since been putting them through their paces on national primetime television.

The prize they were taking part for was a position in the Chechen government’s department for strategic development, where they would be tasked with the vague objective of finding “the right approach, the right strategy” for the region, according to Kadyrov.

All but six finalists were eliminated by the final episode Tuesday night, when Kadyrov lined them up on stage to announce which one of them would become his new staff appointment.

“It is time to announce the winner,” the host of the program told Kadyrov on Tuesday. “Why do you say that it is time,” Kadyrov retorted grinning. “I say when it is time.”

Philip Varychenko, 24, a local of Dusseldorf, clinched the job as all eliminated contestants came to congratulate him to the sight of fireworks above and the sounds of Russian pop star Nikolay Baskov’s crooning about teamwork.

The show itself is not the first foray into elimination-style competition for employment a la The Apprentice, which cemented U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's international fame. It is, however, the first time a Russian government job has been put up for grabs in a television competition. More importantly, the job on the line was for one of the few Russian officials besides President Vladimir Putin who have cultivated such mythological status to their supporters and who inspire such fear among their critics.

From the get-go, the program is focused on showcasing the most impressive sights from Chechnya’s dramatic landscapes and storied culture. Kadyrov and others candidly remark on the separatist wars of the 1990s and the progress made since.

“Look at how beautiful this Republic is,” a starry-eyed Kadyrov exclaims, gesturing to a bright green mountainside, in the special opening episode. “How can you allow military action here?”

Even before meeting the 17 competitors, Kadyrov admits he set up the competition to weed out “weak spirited” contestants. With his frequent vignettes, sharing his general ethos to life, the program has been as much about Kadyrov’s values as the competition itself. A mind for politics and economics “is not necessary” for the winner unless they have a “fighting character,” in the Chechen leader’s words. “I am not a politician, I am a warrior,” he also said.

The challenges themselves ranged from the pedestrian, such as selling ice cream on the streets of Grozny, to the startlingly complex–such as arranging a citizen’s heart bypass following his wife’s distraught appeal for state aid in the office of the local mayor.

If this seems like a puzzling set of prerequisites for the same job, the rest of the challenges only get stranger as contestants for local civil service were faced with racing each other through a police obstacle course, competing in the planning of a Chechen wedding and keeping up with Kadyrov on his morning jog.

Riddled with cameos from Russian celebrities, all visiting Kadyrov’s many lavish developments, the competitors and the job they vie for become a slight afterthought.

The real star of the program is Kadyrov–a man with a reputation as an authoritarian who even his mentor Putin has called "hotheaded" at times. Here, however, he is portrayed as good humored and hard working. The other focus of the show is Chechnya itself, with much of the action set at the backdrop of emerald mountains and crisp waterfalls.

The program tows a line between showing Kadyrov as a hulking, archetypal man’s man, hiking with competitors, boxing them into oblivion and wrangling horses, and showing a gentler side to him. He is pictured picking flowers in one episode and jokes with the show’s host throughout, while in most episodes he regails competitors with personal stories about his father and family. He is almost always smiling and earnestly marvelling at the Chechen outdoors, which the show perpetually dwells on. On a few occasions he candidly acknowledges his longstanding reputation abroad and in the eyes of human rights groups as an undemocratic strongman, but dismissed this as fabrication.

“People think that the image invented by these, gentlemen, these liberals, that I am scary, that I kill,” Kadyrov says candidly during a mountain drive, referring to the longstanding allegations that he is behind assassinations of political critics and dissenters. “That is invented. They are enemies of the people and enemies of Russia.”

The point of the program of "busting stereotypes" is hammered home in the last episode, as one of the contestants claims his grandmother was worried when he said he was going to Chechnya.

“I told the boys I train with that I am going and they still think it is dangerous in Chechnya,” he says, as a series of video statements from the competitors play.

“Many asked me ‘Are you not afraid?’” his mother chimes in. “What should I be afraid of?”

“It is very beautiful over there, the nature is very beautiful,” another contestant’s wife says.

“I want to see him,” a third contestant’s daughter says giddily in his video message.

“Who?”

“Ramzan [Kadyrov],” she says smiling.

As the winner is given a tour of the building where he is to work and shown the room that is permanently reserved for Putin, the competitive aspect is somewhat undercut by the shot of his runners-up standing in the atrium. All have been offered positions in the Chechen government as reward for their efforts and, according to the program’s narrator, all have decided to stay in Chechnya.

Kadyrov ended the series with a post on Instagram, thanking the “millions of viewers” for tuning in Tuesday. The Chechen government did not immediately respond to clarify whether it was planning a second series.