Chechnya’s president is building power in Russia. And his thugs aren't listening to the FSB.
- By Anna NemtsovaAnna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship and the 2015 IWMF Courage in Journalism award.
GROZNY, Russia — The president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov (age 36), is an unrivaled power and authority in Russia’s southern republic. Surrounded by a personal army, his life is protected by thousands of muscle-bound armed men known as Kadyrovtsy, or "Kadyrov’s followers." These are largely former guerillas that turned to serve the state in its ongoing war against Islamist groups — many of whom fought a separatist war against the Russian military in the past. Russians identify them by their black uniforms or by the Cyrillic "Chechnya" written across the back of their T-shirts. The most distinguishing feature is the intense look on their bearded faces; their eyes saying "just you try it."
The methods Kadyrov’s militants use are often violent. They’ve been known to focus on families, kidnapping relatives as a way of persuading Islamist guerillas to give themselves up. Russian federal investigators working in Chechnya like to say: "If somebody tells you it is difficult to work in Grozny, do not believe it — it is impossible to work here." While previously confined to the North Caucasus republic, the Kadyrovtsy’s brutish methods have started spreading to Moscow. Even in the capital, they act with impunity, carrying out hits publicly in broad daylight.
The King Kongs of the Russian law enforcement agencies, the Federal Security Service (the FSB — previously known as the KGB) and the Investigative Committee, are reluctant to investigate crimes committed by Kadyrov’s loyalists, given their role in stabilizing the once-volatile Chechnya. In a café in Moscow’s outskirts, three depressed and drinking FSB officers met with — of all people — Novaya Gazeta investigative journalist Sergei Kanev to reveal their problem. "The investigators claimed to have gone on strike," he said. "They even felt like quitting the service after their suspects, members of Kadyrov’s bodyguards suspected of kidnapping and torturing a man in Moscow, were let free before even standing trial. They felt helpless and powerless, they said, as if somebody spat into their souls."
Never before have representatives of the FSB shared their feelings so openly with reporters from Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s few independent media outlets and hated by officials. Their names are kept anonymous now that they are potential targets of the "bandits-in-uniform." The deputy chief editor of Novaya Gazeta, Sergei Sokolov, said he saw this coming: "It did not happen just today. Officers assigned to work on cases involving Chechen officials have to choose between their professional dignity, and professional humiliation." The FSB’s authority as investigators is being ignored, a huge slight for the powerful security agency.
It’s largely understood that crimes by Kadyrov’s security forces in Chechnya go unpunished due to his close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kadyrov doesn’t even try to hide it: "As long as Putin backs me up, I can do everything — God is Great!" he told me when we spoke at his home in Gudermes.
Today, gloomy men with Kalashnikovs guard the gate to Kadyrov’s official residence in Gudermes as well as his family house in Tsentroi. They provide security at checkpoints and patrol the streets along Putin Prospekt, the central avenue in Chechnya’s capital city Grozny. Traffic police in the republic do not stop cars with the KRA (Kadyrov Ramzan Akhmatovitch) abbreviation on their plates. This deference has spread as KRA-marked Porches and Lexuses, apparently a favorite among Kadyrov’s men, started appearing on the streets of Moscow. (It’s part of the extravaganza he surrounds himself with, and includes a car collection and private zoo. Kadyrov has also been known to fly out western celebrities to entertain him for his birthday.)
Russian officials complain that Putin’s once perfect power vertical seems to be cracking when it comes to attempting a reasonable dialogue with Kadyrov. The army feels especially bitter about the cases of Lt. Yevgeny Khudyakov and Lt. Sergei Arakcheyev, two of the few Russian troops to receive long jail terms following a criminal prosecution for killing Chechen civilians in 2003. The military believes that Arakcheyev is innocent and suspects that the court made a biased decision in order to please Kadyrov.
Yuri Krupnov, the head of a pro-Kremlin’s think tank, wrote an open letter to Kadyrov, calling on the president to look into "fixing the deepest injustice committed against Arakcheyev, who has become a symbol of the situation in the North Caucasus." So far, Grozny has not replied.
Moscow has sent little to no support to aid the accused law enforcement officers. At least for now, the Kremlin sees challenging the current regime in Chechnya as risky and undesirable, and is tolerating Kadyrov’s rule above-the-law to spill outside Chechnya’s borders. "The Kremlin considers Kadyrov’s model of counter-insurgency and governance effective, and is likely to continue granting Kadyrov and his people very broad credentials" according to the Moscow director of International Crisis Group, Yekaterina Sokirianskaya. "This will not change, unless the pressure for change from within Russian society dramatically increases."