Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic, said he was ready to step down, leaving it to the Kremlin to choose his successor.
Kadyrov, 41, has been accused by human rights bodies of arbitrary arrests and torture of opponents, zero tolerance of sexual minorities and tough political declarations that have embarrassed the Kremlin.
A former rebel who had led Chechnya since 2007, he was endorsed by President Vladimir Putin in March last year to carry on in the job, while being warned that Russian law must be strictly enforced in the majority-Muslim region.
Asked in a TV interview if he was prepared to resign, Kadyrov replied: “It is possible to say that it is my dream.”
“Once there was a need for people like me to fight, to put things in order. Now we have order and prosperity … and time has come for changes in the Chechen Republic,” he told Rossiya 1 nationwide channel in comments aired early on Monday in central Russia.
Asked about his would-be successor, Kadyrov replied: “This is the prerogative of the state leadership.”
“If I am asked … there are several people who are 100 percent capable of carrying out these duties at the highest level.” He did not elaborate.
Kadyrov’s unexpected statement comes as Putin, 65, is widely expected to announce he will run for his fourth term as president in elections due in March.
The former KGB spy is widely expected to win by a landslide if he chooses to seek re-election, but some analysts have said his association with politicians like Kadyrov may be exploited by opponents during the campaign.
Chechnya, devastated by two wars in which government troops fought pro-independence rebels, has been rebuilt thanks to generous financial handouts from Russia’s budget coffers. It remains one of Russia’s most heavily subsidised regions.
Describing Putin as his “idol”, Kadyrov said in the interview: “I am ready to die for him, to fulfill any order.”
Kadyrov also strongly denied a Chechen link to the killing of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015.
In June, a Moscow court convicted five Chechen men of murdering Nemtsov, one of Putin’s most vocal critics. Nemtsov had been working on a report examining Russia’s role in Ukraine. His murder sent a chill through opposition circles.
“I am more than confident … these (Chechen) guys had nothing to do with that. According to my information, they are innocent,” Kadyrov said in the interview.