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Chechen Leader Puts Russian Opposition in the Crosshairs on Social Media

Ramzan Kadyrov is using his massive online following to call for a violent crackdown on the Kremlin’s opponents.

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Ramzan Kadyrov, the MMA loving, gun-toting leader of Chechnya, knows the power of social media. The strongman has over 284,000 followers on Twitter, 352,000 on Vkontakte (a Russian site similar to Facebook), an active following on LiveJournal, and over 1.6 million on Instagram — where he opines on everything from chest workouts to his favorite Quran verses to reasons why Russian President Vladimir Putin is great.

Kadyrov’s love for Putin now seems to be leading him to emulate the Russian autocrat: nearly a year after the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Kadyrov is using his massive online following to call for a violent crackdown on the Kremlin’s opponents.

On Sunday, Kadyrov posted a video on Instagram showing Russian opposition politician and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov along with activist Vladimir Kara-Murza in a sniper’s crosshairs. The short clip shows Kasyanov talking to Kara-Murza, a journalist who runs the pro-democracy opposition movement Open Russia, talking in Strasbourg, Austria while a crosshair hovers over the two men. The caption reads: “Kasyanov came to Strasbourg for money for the Russian opposition. Those who did not understand before will understand now.”

The Instagram post has since been removed, but a screenshot from the clip can be seen here.

During his visit to Strasbourg last week, Kasyanov had called on a parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe to prepare a special report on the high-profile murder of Nemtsov on Feb. 27, 2015 and warned that Kadyrov’s comments marked a broader crackdown on Kremlin critics in Russia.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Kasyanov called Kadyrov’s video a “direct threat of a murder motivated by political hatred” and said Putin, who put Kadyrov in charge of Chechnya in 2007, “bears personal responsibility for Kadyrov’s actions.”

The new video is the latest in a series of threatening messages from Kadyrov against Kremlin critics, whom he accuses of working for the West and seeking to undermine Russia. Parliamentary elections are due later in 2016 and, with a Russian economy battered by falling oil prices, the possibility of opposition groups capitalizing on social discontent with the political status quo in the country is becoming more real.

On January 12, Kadyrov called members of the opposition “enemies of the people and traitors” who should be prosecuted for subversion. “Nothing is holy to them,” he said in comments carried by the Chechen government’s official website. Kadyrov later re-asserted those claims in fiery op-ed for Izvestia, a pro-Kremlin Russian newspaper, where he offered opposition activists the services of a Chechen psychiatric hospital to treat their “mass psychosis”.

“I promise we won’t spare the injections. We can do double,” Kadyrov wrote.

The harsh words prompted Konstantin Senchenko, an obscure local legislator in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, to call Kadyrov a “disgrace” on his Facebook page. Senchenko penned an apology just one day later, a move that he said he made after being warned by unnamed men that he’d suffer the same fate of Nemtsov, who was assassinated just a short distance away from the Kremlin. Fighters from one of Kadyrov’s battalions were arrested over the murder and opposition activists have alleged that Kadyrov played an active role in the assassination.

The public apology by Senchenko prompted a series of parody apologies to Kadyrov on social media from members of Russia’s beleaguered ranks of liberals. Pavel Lobkov, an anchor for the internet news channel TV Dozhd, apologized while running on a treadmill with no pants on, something a Chechen blogger was forced to do after criticizing Kadyrov. Similarly, television presenter and socialite Ksenia Sobchak issued a mock apology with a plastic bag over her head and thanked Kadyrov for not killing her for using a televised press conference to ask Putin about the Chechen leader’s alleged human rights abuses.

Moscow fought two bloody wars against separatists in Chechnya after the breakup of the Soviet Union, where Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, emerged as the Kremlin’s ally of choice to stabilize the war-torn region. After Akhmad was killed in a bombing in 2004 by Chechen separatists, Ramzan, who led his father’s militia, emerged as the chosen successor in 2007, with strong backing from Putin.

Since then, Kadyrov has been given a free hand to rule Chechnya as he wishes by the Kremlin, with the region operating in a legal gray area. Meanwhile, the strongman has used social media to show his stranglehold on power in Chechnya and his unrelenting devotion to Putin.

Photo credit: Kadyrov Press Office/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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