Chechnya: Where Obama is banned and Steven Seagal is guest of honor


Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, left, with Steven Seagal and a friend. (Instagram: @kadyrov_95)

On Saturday, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced that President Obama would be banned from entering the Russian republic he rules. Addressing his Instagram followers, Kadyrov said Obama and European officials José Manuel Barroso, Herbert Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton would not only be barred from the country but also have their bank accounts and assets in Chechnya frozen for their roles in sowing global discontent.

It's unlikely that Obama is canceling fights to Grozny right now or that Ashton is worried about all her Chechen bank accounts. But it's an interesting piece of bravado from Kadyrov, a former warlord who has generally shown himself eager to embrace Western celebrities.

Kadyrov's closest Western friend is perhaps Gérard Depardieu, the French actor best known for the titular role in the 1990 romantic comedy "Cyrano de Bergerac." Depardieu is an understandable ally for Kadyrov: His hard-drinking, macho image fits in with the Russian masculinity espoused by Kadyrov and President Vladimir Putin. In 2013, after a spat over taxes in France for which he was branded "shabby" by the French prime minister, Depardieu gave up his French passport and was granted Russian citizenship by Putin.

Depardieu and Kadyrov soon bonded, with the Chechen leader giving his thespian friend a five-bedroom apartment in Grozny (unfortunately, the building later caught fire). Kadyrov documented their friendship on Instagram during May 2013.

As you may have noticed, Depardieu wasn't the only celebrity featured in these pictures. British actor Elizabeth Hurley also was in Grozny with Depardieu and Kadyrov, apparently in preparation for a film role. Kadyrov later posted a picture of Hurley with a tiny cat:

For Americans of a certain age, however, the biggest name on Kadyrov's guest list would be Steven Seagal. The American action-movie hero, well known these days for his eccentric nature, has been embraced by Putin's Russia in recent years. Just a few days after Hurley and Depardieu visited Grozny in 2013, Seagal also featured prominently on Kadyrov's Instagram feed. "“Nobility. Willpower. Honor," he wrote of the actor. "Qualities, characteristic of Chechens. So we can say he is almost a Chechen!”

In 2011, Kadyrov held a 35th birthday celebration and invited a number of celebrities. According to a report from the Hollywood Reporter, big names such as Kevin Costner, Eva Mendes and Shakira declined the invitation, but others, including Belgian martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme and Oscar-winning American actress Hillary Swank, were able to make it. Swank was singled out for criticism by groups such as Human Rights Watch (Kadyrov has been accused of numerous human rights violations) and later said she deeply regretted attending the event.


American actress Hilary Swank attends a concert in a new residential and commercial complex in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on Oct. 5, 2011. (Musa Sadulayev/Associated Press)

Perhaps at first glance, Kadyrov's embrace of Western celebrities and rejection of Western politicians might seem somewhat of a contradiction. Of course, it's not really. Most of his celebrity guests have been awkward figures in the West, action-movie stars who have fallen from popularity and dramatic actors who are political pariahs at home. Others seemed to be people who hadn't really read much about Chechnya and were happy to take a paycheck for making an appearance.

Either way, the Chechen leader's love of celebrities is driven by the same thing as his rejection of Obama: world-class bluster.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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