Russia Slaying Puts Spotlight on Kadyrov

The Associated Press
Thursday, October 12, 2006; 2:51 PM

MOSCOW -- When Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov turned 30 last week, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya said his birthday gift should be a criminal trial. Two days later, she was gunned down in her Moscow apartment building.

The high-profile slaying of the crusading journalist has drawn increased scrutiny upon Kadyrov. The Kremlin favorite has brought visible improvements to Chechnya, still violent and wrecked by 12 years of war, but critics say he has gained power behind a phalanx of killers and thugs.

Politkovskaya's newspaper on Thursday published an unfinished article on torture in Chechnya that the journalist was writing when she was died.

The article in Novaya Gazeta, accompanied by graphic images taken from a video, described the alleged torture by Chechen security services of two young men branded terrorists. Many Chechen security personnel are under Kadyrov's control.

"Are we fighting legally against lawlessness?" Politkovskaya asked in the article. "Or are we thrashing them with our own lawlessness?"

Kadyrov denied on Wednesday any involvement in Politkovskaya's murder, saying it was enemies trying to make him look bad. But less than a month ago he suggested she worked for "enemies of Russia," and he could not put to rest widespread accusations of abductions and abuse by security forces under his control.

Politkovskaya was among those critics who say that Kadyrov's brutal tactics might backfire instead of accomplishing Russia's goal of turning Chechnya into a stable, loyal subject _ not the source of bloodshed and terror attacks such as the 2004 raid on a school in nearby Beslan that led to the deaths 333 people, most of them children.

They say he stands at the center of a volatile web of one-time separatist fighters and competing security forces that analysts worry could explode into a new spiral of violence.

A former rebel himself, Kadyrov has been amassing so much power that many predict he will soon move up from prime minister and become president of Chechnya, now that he's reached the legal age.

A visitor to Chechnya might think he is already president. His bangs-and-beard-framed face is displayed on roadside billboards that picture him with smiling children, and banners proclaim him "a worthy leader of the Chechen people."

In a personality cult like that of North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kadyrov is cast as the heir to his father Akhmad Kadyrov, a former rebel who became Chechnya's first pro-Moscow president in 2003 _ part of the Kremlin's strategy of putting Chechens in charge _ and was assassinated seven months later.

After years with little sign of improvement in the region's war-ruined landscape, some Chechens see Kadyrov as the engine of the recent boom in construction. There are sleekly paved streets and freshly refaced buildings among the bombed-out homes and apartment houses.

Kadyrov greeted reporters recently in a black, open-neck shirt in an ornate room at the Ramzan Boxing Club in the city of Gudermes. The look is part of his appeal to war-weary youth, who attend schools he has helped reopen and rock concerts and beauty contests he's organized. He hosted former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson last year.

"Whatever he undertakes, whatever he promises, he gets it done," said Rita Saidulayeva, 27, relaxing with co-workers outside a jewelry shop on the refurbished street near the club. "We want him to become president."

Kadyrov insists he's not ready for that yet, but it may be President Vladimir Putin _ with the power to appoint Russian regional leaders, subject to approval from pliant legislatures _ who is hesitant to hand him too much clout too soon.

Kadyrov praised Putin during the boxing club meeting, but he also accused Russian officials of hobbling reconstruction by stealing money meant for Chechnya. He demanded for Chechnya a larger share of revenues from its oil _ remarks that raised questions about the depth of his loyalty.

"Russia is now strong and he is oriented toward Russia, but what will happen if Russia weakens and there is no alternative to Ramzan in Chechnya?" Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies think tank said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "He will no longer ask, he will demand."

Alexander Cherkasov, a Chechnya expert at the Russian human rights organization Memorial, said too much power is concentrated in Kadyrov, and people beholden to him have stirred anger and made enemies by abusing the authority that comes with a gun or an official position.

"They have simply done too much to provoke vengeance," he said. "Too many people have been wounded by their actions."

© 2006 The Associated Press