MOSCOW — Nearly a year after the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a senior ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin is again calling for a harsh crackdown on the Kremlin’s opponents.
The comments — made by Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Russian region of Chechnya, over the past week and culminating Tuesday with the suggestion that Putin’s opponents should be sent to “a good psychiatric hospital” — echo the harsh anti-opposition rhetoric that flared in Russia early last year. At the time, Putin’s supporters took to the streets of Moscow to threaten violence against those seen as favoring peace with Ukraine. On Feb. 27, Nemtsov was assassinated in the shadow of the Kremlin in one of the highest-profile political murders since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Russian authorities have prosecuted Chechens with links to Kadyrov for the killing. They have not officially traced it back to Kadyrov, and he has denied any responsibility. But Western diplomats, opposition activists and even some senior Russian officials say privately that they believe that the orders came from the very top in Chechnya.
That has some of those named by Kadyrov — most of whom are allies of Nemtsov — taking the Chechen leader’s campaign seriously. The strongman controls a security force of heavily armed fighters who operate largely with impunity in Chechnya and in Moscow. Chechens have been tied to other murders of Kremlin critics, including opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya, although Kadyrov has never been officially implicated in any of them.
Opposition leaders are “jackals who are dreaming of destroying our state,” Kadyrov wrote in an editorial published Tuesday by the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia.
“We have a village, Braguny, and there is a good psychiatric hospital there,” Kadyrov wrote. “The boiling reaction of the non-system opposition and its supporters might be treated as mass psychosis. I can help them with this clinical problem and promise that we won’t stint on injections.”
The verbal assault started last week when Kadyrov blasted opposition activists at a news conference held on the occasion of Russia’s Press Day.
Putin’s liberal opponents “should be treated as enemies of the people, as traitors,” Kadyrov said. “These people should be tried to the fullest extent for their subversive activities.”
On Sunday, Kadyrov’s chief of staff, Magomed Daudov, posted a picture on Instagram of the Chechen leader holding back a massive Caucasian shepherd dog named Tarzan. The dog’s “teeth itch,” Daudov wrote. “He’s barely restrained.”
Kadyrov and Daudov targeted opposition leaders by name, including one of Putin’s most prominent critics, Alexei Navalny; Nemtsov ally Ilya Yashin; the head of the Ekho Moskvy opposition radio station, Alexander Venediktov; and an exiled opposition member of parliament, Ilya Ponomarev.
Some of those named have responded with humor. Yashin posted a picture of his cat on Facebook, saying: “I have a cat who lives at home. She’s also tough.” Two journalists on an opposition-minded television station, TV Dozhd, mockingly begged Kadyrov for clemency.
But others were more cautious.
“These are unprecedented statements on his part,” Navalny said Tuesday. “They are repeating what they did a year ago because there was no official reprimand.” Navalny likened Kadyrov’s Tuesday editorial to those written “in 1935 or 1937,” the years of major Joseph Stalin purges.
“Nobody believed Nemtsov could be killed,” Navalny said. “Nobody knows whether anything could happen after these words.”
Even as Kadyrov lobbed his threats at the opposition over the past week, there has been next to no official reaction. One local politician who condemned the barrage, an obscure member of a regional parliament in Siberia named Konstantin Senchenko, quickly apologized in a video. He later said he had received threats that he could be killed like Nemtsov. The head of Russia’s largely powerless human rights council, Ella Pamfilova, also criticized Kadyrov’s remarks, and her group plans to investigate them.
Kadyrov is planning a massive rally of his supporters in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on Friday, a year after he had organized a similar event that drew up to 200,000 protesting the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published by the Paris-based Charlie Hebdo newsmagazine.
Friday’s rally, seemingly designed to demonstrate his strong domestic support, may drive home the Kremlin’s dilemma. Russia fought two bloody wars against separatists in Chechnya after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Kadyrov has succeeded in bringing a measure of peace to the region by cracking down harshly on critics and opponents. Putin appears to believe that he has no alternative to Kadyrov to run Chechnya, analysts say.
“Nobody at the top level of Russian political life tells him: ‘Stop it. It’s enough,’ ” said Alexey Malashenko, a Chechnya expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, an independent think tank. “He feels he has no limits.”