MOSCOW — Ramzan Kadyrov, the much-feared ruler of Chechnya, has been doing some serious image-burnishing lately, smiling sunnily as a constellation of celebrities orbits around him.
One of the luminaries near him last week was American action figure Steven Seagal, who promised to deliver some even heavier-duty star power and vowed to return this week with a passel of congressmen in tow. He almost succeeded.
On Wednesday, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who is leading a six-member delegation to Moscow to discuss improving counterterrorism cooperation, said he had indeed been in touch with Seagal . Security rules governing congressional travel prevented him from saying more, the lawmaker said.
The idea of U.S. officials going to Chechnya, a Muslim region in southern Russia that fought two bloody wars of secession with Moscow in the 1990s, generated heated but closely held conversations in Washington last week.
A Capitol Hill staffer with knowledge of the conversations — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the contents — said State Department and other officials argued against travel to Chechnya, not only because of safety concerns but also because of Kadyrov’s reputation.
Kadyrov is a colorful fellow, with his gold-plated pistol stuck in his waistband, his endorsement of polygamy, his idea that women are the property of men. And he has a reputation for largess: He once gave an 11-pound lump of gold as a wedding gift to a couple in neighboring Dagestan, and this year he presented French actor Gerard Depardieu with an apartment. But he’s also known for suppressing terrorism with exceptional brutality, human rights groups say.
Human Rights Watch says the 36-year-old Kadyrov “is alleged to be personally behind a number of cases of torture and killings.” The most recent State Department human rights report describes accusations that Kadyrov’s security forces kidnap families of rebel fighters and torch their houses.
When Kadyrov sought to enter one of his racehorses at a New York track in 2011, the state’s racing board queried the State Department. In her reply, Deborah Graze, the acting assistant secretary for democracy and human rights at the time, cited “compelling evidence that the government of Chechnya, under the control of Mr. Kadyrov, has committed and continues to commit such serious human rights violations and abuses as extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearances and rape.”
Somehow, Kadyrov manages to gather celebrities around him. Sometimes he pays them. In 2011, actress Hilary Swank joined Kadyrov in Grozny, the Chechen capital, for his birthday party. Her visit was met with such outrage that she was forced to apologize. She said she would donate to charity the fee she had received to attend the event. Some reports put it at $500,000, a figure her publicist deemed high.
Last week found Kadyrov entertaining not only Seagal, but also Depardieu, who has become a Russian citizen to avoid French taxes, and English actress Elizabeth Hurley. She’s making a movie with Depardieu, and Kadyrov gave her a fluffy white kitten to cuddle.
Kadyrov’s press secretary, Alvi Karimov, posted an Instagram photo of himself with Seagal, which he said was taken during an interview broadcast on Karimov’s television show. “I met a wonderful person Ramzan Kadyrov,” he quoted Seagal as saying. “And I am coming back soon with a group of U.S. congressmen.”
While the trip was being planned last week, two congressmen decided against going. Marilyn Dillihay, chief of staff for Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), said then that Cohen would go to Moscow but not to Chechnya. A second Democrat, William R. Keating (Mass.), said Wednesday that he had never intended to go to Chechnya.
Rohrabacher said Wednesday that none of the members of Congress accompanying him could say more until the end of their trip. On Wednesday evening, five stood together in a dark corner near the entrance to a Moscow subway station. There, they left a large wreath in memory of 13 Russians who were killed and 90 who were injured in a bombing in August 2000.
Rohrabacher, who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and emerging threats, was joined by Cohen, Keating and Republicans Steve King (Iowa) and Paul Cook (Calif.). Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) had not yet arrived.
Rohrabacher said the lawmakers would be meeting with Russian officials to find ways to work together better in the fight against terrorism. Besides searching for answers to questions about the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, who have roots in Chechnya and Dagestan, the delegation wants to show Russians that their interests coincide with those of Americans in fighting terrorism.
“The Cold War is over,” Rohrabacher said. “We should be standing together.”
Keating, who represents a district south of Boston, said he was in Moscow on behalf of the victims of the marathon bombing. “We want to build bridges,” he said, “so this doesn’t happen to other people.”