In Chechnya, apprehensions over a roughshod leader

March 20, 2011

— The capital of Chechnya, left in rubble at the end of two savage wars with Moscow, has been remarkably rebuilt with new apartment buildings, a gold-leafed museum, an enormous mosque — and heavily armed men posted throughout the city who hint at the unspoken bargain that holds the peace.

The armed men answer not to Moscow but to Ramzan Kadyrov, the former warlord whom Vladimir Putin appointed president of the Chechen Republic in Russia’s North Caucasus Mountains four years ago, letting him do as he wished in return for subduing his rebellious people.

Kadyrov runs the Muslim region as his personal fiefdom, with a private militia and his own men on the police force, who have been accused of abductions, torture and murder. Establishing the veneer of a separate Islamic state, Kadyrov forces women to wear headscarves, encourages polygamy and observes elements of sharia law, all in violation of Russian law and contrary to more liberal Chechen tradition.

Now Moscow has rendered a verdict on its roughshod lieutenant: Next month he will begin five more years in office, thanks to President Dmitry Medvedev.

Even though Putin has systematically consolidated his power over regional leaders — in 2004 making their office appointed rather than elected — and Medvedev often lauds the rule of law, the two Russian leaders appear to have little control here and no choice but to applaud Kadyrov’s second inauguration April 5.

“Ramzan Kadyrov has created a state within a state,” said Sergei Markedonov, a Moscow analyst now in Washington as a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think he holds the Russian leadership hostage. There are no ways to replace him. I think that’s the greatest problem.”

Suppressing militants

Last week, Kadyrov summoned a group of foreign journalists visiting Grozny to a late-night meeting in the heavily fortified presidential compound. Bounding in to a conference room close to midnight, after keeping the reporters waiting for two hours, Kadyrov deflected questions about human rights violations and asserted he honors Russian law.

“Russia gave us the mission to destroy terrorism and extinguish it in the North Caucasus,” Kadyrov said, “and results have already been achieved.”

Although terrorism has lessened, it has not been eliminated, disturbing to the West, which fears brutal rule will only nurture more violence. The two Chechen wars, from 1994 to 1996 and 1999 to 2003, left up to 50,000 dead, mostly civilians, and provoked terrible brutality among Russian soldiers and Chechen fighters, eventually setting off a wave of terrorism — the hostage-taking at a Moscow theater in 2002, the Beslan school siege of 2004, Moscow subway bombings last year and the Domodedovo airport bombing in January, among them.

Kadyrov frequently proclaims his loyalty to Putin — a giant photo of the Russian prime minister adorns the control tower at the Grozny airport — but his power now comes from his own force of arms rather than from Moscow’s political authority. In deference to Kadyrov, Moscow withdrew most of its troops in 2009 and those few remaining stay hidden in barracks.

“If something should happen to Kadyrov, what does Russia do then?” said Kimberly Marten, a Columbia University professor. “The whole relationship with Chechnya is based on one man. There are probably some Russian troops left, but they are under the direction of local security forces.”

Marten, who has just finished a book on warlords and states, calls it outsourcing sovereignty. Putin, she suggests, was willing to cede authority to have Kadyrov control what Putin could not.

“The irony is that Russia now has what amounts to an autonomous Chechnya,” she said, “after it fought two wars to stop Chechen autonomy.”

Markedonov pointed out that although the Kremlin removed politically powerful leaders it opposed, such as Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Kadyrov has guns.

“I cannot imagine the day when Putin or Medvedev would invite him in and say, ‘Dear Ramzan, sorry, you are free, you are no longer president of Chechnya,” Markedonov said.

Kadyrov told reporters last week that there are only 68 militants in Chechnya, and he knows all of their names. One is Doku Umarov, a militant connected to al-Qaeda who asserted responsibility for the subway and airport bombings and who causes enough concern in the United States that the State Department last summer put him on its list of known terrorists. “Soon our hands will reach Umarov,” Kadyrov said.

‘How can we hide?’

Under the watchful eye of officials, young women at Grozny State University who were uniformly wearing headscarves said they did so freely. But later that day, when a few journalists escaped the official tour for unsanctioned meetings, they heard very different accounts of life in Chechnya.

In Urus Martan, a small unilluminated town southwest of Grozny, 41-year-old Raisa Turluyeva spoke tearfully of her son, Said Salekh Ibragimov, who disappeared in October 2009 at age 19.

That day police in her home village of Goity, about 30 miles south of the capital, surrounded her house and two others owned by her brothers-in-law, which shared a courtyard.

She said police tracking rebels, who hide in the forest and attack Kadyrov’s forces, shot a man to death outside the house — one policeman was killed in the gunfight. Police accused Turluyeva, a widow, and her family of harboring the dead militant and other Chechen fighters.

The houses were burned down and later that day her son, a college student in Grozny, was picked up by police, who wanted information about the militants. He was last seen that night in the police station, the marks of a beating on his face.

Turluyeva has filed a complaint about his disappearance with the European Court of Human Rights.

The Memorial human rights organization says that 2009 saw at least 93 abductions and 30 murders in Chechnya, which has a population of just over 1 million. Memorial suggested that the actual number was three or four times higher, but that people were too frightened to report the crimes.

Last year, Memorial drastically curtailed its work here. Its chief investigator, Natalya Estemirova, who had tangled publicly with Kadyrov over rights issues, was abducted outside her Grozny home in July 2009. Hours later, her bullet-ridden body was found in a clump of woods.

“Every woman in the republic who has a son is afraid,” said Turluyeva, who said she is more frightened now than when she was holed up with her children under bombardment in a cellar during the wars. “Then it was clear from whom you should be hiding and when you should be hiding and how. And now we don’t know when they’ll come. How can we hide?”

‘The law of Kadyrov’

Kadyrov once fought against the Russians, leaving school to take up arms at 16 in the first Chechen war. But his father, Akhmad, eventually changed sides, was elected president of Chechnya in 2003 and was killed in a bombing in 2004.

Although Kadyrov declared Chechnya was now the safest place in the world, men cradling Kalashnikovs were posted outside the journalists’ hotel. The road to the airport was sprinkled with armed men standing behind trees, or sitting in unmarked cars. Visitors to the mosque passed through metal detectors.

Subsidized by Moscow, Kadyrov spends freely. The three-story museum he built in honor of his father has a 3,000-pound Iranian chandelier and several varieties of Iranian marble. Kadyrov has hired a famous Dutch soccer player, reportedly at a hefty salary, as coach of the local team and last week Kadyrov himself led a Chechen team on the field against Brazilian 2002 World Cup champions. Residents say that government employees give up two months of pay a year for his personal coffers, but no one criticizes him. Those who do so end up missing or dead.

Women here often bear the brunt of Kadyrov’s caprices. “There is only one law in the Chechen Republic, and that is the law of Kadyrov,” said Tanya Lokshina, who researched last week’s report for Human Rights Watch on the forced Islamic dress code. “What he says is law.”

In Grozny, women too frightened to be named told a reporter that women cannot enter public buildings without headscarves, and employers order them to cover their heads at work. Women here traditionally wore a wide headband but did not entirely cover their hair. During the wars, they kept Chechnya running while men either fought or hid at home so that they would not be rounded up by Russian soldiers. Now many of them feel hounded by men emboldened by Kadyrov to harass them.

Last summer, women were shot with paint balls as they walked on Putin Avenue, their heads uncovered. The assailants were dressed in police uniforms.

“Let the world know we are here,” one of the women said. “If we are heard, it gives us hope.”

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