Gangster President

Saturday, March 3, 2007

THIS WEEK Vladimir Putin delivered another clear message about the kind of state Russia is becoming. He did so by nominating as the new president of the republic of Chechnya a man named Ramzan Kadyrov -- an unspeakably savage and corrupt warlord. Mr. Kadyrov has done Mr. Putin a great service: Using his own militia -- gang might be a better term -- he has imposed order in the name of the Kremlin on most of the rebellious republic, allowing the Russian president to declare victory in the war he started more than seven years ago. The Chechen's reward is to be installed as official head of the republic's government, where he can be expected to promote a cult of personality, employ state resources for his personal aggrandizement and murder his opponents with impunity.

Mr. Kadyrov has already been pursuing this agenda for some time. He and his "kadyrovtsy" are feared throughout the shattered republic: They are known for grisly acts of torture, extortion, kidnapping, rape and murder. The heads of slain rebels are displayed in some villages as a warning against crossing the new leader. Opponents outside Chechnya aren't safe, either. One, Movladi Baisarov, was gunned down in November in the center of Moscow while police looked on. Another, the independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered outside her apartment in October; Mr. Kadyrov is one of several suspected sponsors of her slaying. Mr. Putin has taken no action to clear up either case.

In one sense Mr. Putin's sponsorship of Mr. Kadyrov is a measure of his desperation to find a way out of the war he started, which killed some 80,000 Chechens, most of them civilians, as well as unreported thousands of Russian soldiers. The new president is not a very reliable puppet; a former rebel himself, he once said that his "hero" was Shamil Basayev, the Chechen terrorist who staged the bloody attacks on a Moscow theater and a school in the town of Beslan. Mr. Kadyrov has expressed interest in introducing elements of Islamic sharia law in Chechnya, whose population is Muslim. His loyalty to the Russian state is nominal. Only 30 years old, he is likely to evolve into a self-sustaining despot whom Moscow could dislodge only by force.

By installing him, Mr. Putin is telling the world that Russia has become a place where the most sadistic criminals can be political leaders, where the murder of opponents is openly sanctioned and where the only qualification that matters is loyalty to Mr. Putin. Luckily, perhaps, for the Russian president, George W. Bush and the other leaders of the Group of Seven democracies, who continue to treat Mr. Putin as a strategic partner, are doing their best to ignore that message.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company