Ramzan Kadyrov is well known as Vladimir Putin’s stooge in the troubled southern Russian republic of Chechnya. A 34-year-old cowboy-like politician, he has gained a frightening stranglehold over his territory. He became president (with Putin’s backing) when he was just 30, displacing the ineffectual Alu Akihinov. Today, his bearded countenance stares down from every conceivable spot in the capital, Grozny, reminding all of the truism of autocratic politics – ‘hold your friends close and your enemies closer’. He is everywhere and everything in Chechnya – man of the year, winner of the ‘Hero of Russia Star’. Schoolyard banners proclaim: ‘Ramzan is a role model for youth and a worthy son of his people.’
Kadyrov combines the mindset of an adolescent with the morals of a mafia hit man. Many of his opponents and critics have been killed in brutal circumstances. Kidnappings, beatings and disappearances are weekly staples of Chechen life. He is reputed to run his own private prison in his home village of Tsentoroi. According to the late Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya: ‘He is an extremely cruel man… several people told me that Ramzan Kadyrov personally tortured them in Tsentoroi.’ Politkovskaya was assassinated in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment in October 2006. Kadyrov pleads ignorance and innocence, opining that Politkovskaya should have stuck to being a housewife. The other high-profile murder linked to him is the 2009 kidnapping and shooting of human rights crusader Natasha Estemirova, snatched outside her Grozny apartment. Estemirova, who reportedly enraged Kadyrov with her opposition to compulsory headscarves for women, was about to meet with families of Chechens killed by the security forces.
Ironically, Kadyrov comes from a warlord clan that fought against Russia in the first Chechen war of the early 1990s, then changed sides to become Moscow’s favourites at the beginning of the second Chechen conflict in 1999. His father, a local imam, was also once president but was assassinated in 2004 at an official ceremony in the Grozny Sports Stadium.
Ramzan Kadyrov is a man of varied interests. He is a professional boxer with a fleet of expensive luxury cars. But don’t mistake him for being shallow. He has remade shattered downtown Grozny, committing himself to building ‘the biggest mosque in Europe’. His religious ‘convictions’ have led him to impose a ban on alcohol, and make headscarves for women compulsory. He has publicly championed both polygamy and honour killings based on the view that wives are the property of their husbands – a thinly veiled attempt to undercut support for Chechen nationalism that is in part fuelled by Islamic fundamentalism. Still, few Muslims (whether fundamentalist or liberal) are fooled by his devotion – he is largely regarded as Moscow’s thug throughout the Muslim world.
Tens of thousands, mostly Chechens, died in two wars in the 1990s. Today, Russia would have the world believe the situation has normalized. But despite billions poured into Grozny, hundreds (some say thousands) of independence fighters launch weekly attacks and most of the population lives in fear of state-sponsored kidnappings and murders. By and large, the West has bought into Russia’s story, influenced by some spectacular acts of terrorism by Chechen suicide squads – most recently the March 2010 Moscow subway bombings and the horrendous 2004 attack on a school in neighbouring North Ossetia.
Meanwhile, Western nations searching for allies in the ‘War on Terror’ choose to overlook the roots of the Chechen conflict in general and the behaviour of Ramzan Kadyrov in particular.
Sources: www.opendemocracy.org; the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.org); the Caucasian Knot (www.eng.kalaz-usel.ru); The Jamestown Foundation (www.jamestown.org): The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk); International Freedom of Expression Exchange (www.ifex.org); www.wikipedia.org