The Islamic Republic of Chechnya

Why is the Kremlin-imposed leader of this republic sounding so much like the militants he's meant to be cracking down on?

Musa Sadulayev
Musa Sadulayev
Musa Sadulayev

GROZNY, Russia — When I first came to the capital of Chechnya seven years ago, large stretches of it lay in rubble.

GROZNY, Russia — When I first came to the capital of Chechnya seven years ago, large stretches of it lay in rubble.

Prospekt Pobedy (Victory Avenue), the central boulevard, was lined with tottering ruins. By the Minutka roundabout stood rows of five-story apartment blocks half-destroyed by bombing and artillery strikes a few years earlier. No one could possibly live there, you thought — until you noticed a light bulb burning dimly through a shell hole, or a splash of color where clothes hung to dry on a balcony.

Seen today, the city is almost unrecognizable. Putin Avenue — as Prospekt Pobedy is now called — is a pleasant street lined with cafes, shops, and beauty salons. At its southern end rises the biggest mosque in Europe, its fluted minarets gracefully puncturing the sky. Beyond that, a cluster of high-rise office buildings are under rapid construction: At a squint, it could be a corner of Dubai. And all around are huge billboards with the grinning, bearded face of the man deemed responsible for Grozny’s remarkable turnaround: Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

“Our city is transformed,” a shopkeeper told me the day I arrived last week. But the key question in Kadyrov’s Chechnya is this: At what cost came the transformation, and was it worth the price?

In the mid-1990s, Boris Yeltsin sent tanks and jets into Grozny to stop separatists from breaking away from Russia and establishing a sovereign Chechen state. Tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of people died in the resulting mayhem, most of them civilians. But in 1996, the Russian army was repelled, shockingly, by a motley but impassioned band of Chechen irregulars.

Then in late 1999, after a chaotic three years of de facto Chechen independence, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, sent troops back into Chechnya. Once again, airstrikes were used to annihilate resistance, with brazen disregard for the suffering of noncombatants. This time, the Kremlin won, and the resistance fighters retreated to the hills, where they have kept up a guerrilla campaign against pro-Moscow forces ever since.

In that struggle, both sides have behaved abominably. State security services kidnap, torture, and kill suspected fighters, often on flimsy evidence. Meanwhile, the increasingly radical Islamist militants — now embedded in other Muslim republics throughout the Russian North Caucasus — assassinate officials and send suicide bombers to kill and maim civilians in Moscow and other cities.

Nonetheless, today Chechnya is the Kremlin’s success story. Billions of dollars have been poured into reconstruction. And in comparison with the neighboring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan, Chechnya is relatively calm. There are isolated incidents of terrible violence, but Grozny has an air of normality. It’s safe to go out after dark. There are shopping centers, restaurants, and cinemas, things that are virtually nonexistent 50 miles away in Nazran, the largest town in Ingushetia.*

In exchange for this peace, the Chechens have been obliged to accept as their leader the man whom the Kremlin credits with providing it: the 34-year-old Kadyrov, a former rebel fighter who switched sides and was appointed head of the Moscow-backed administration.

Modern-day Chechnya is, in fact, one long love poem to Kadyrov. His face, and that of his father, who was president of the republic until he was assassinated in 2004, is everywhere you look. “A nation that produces such sons cannot but demand respect!” cry the slogans. “Thank you, Ramzan, for caring about our future!” Meanwhile, stalls at Grozny airport sell hagiographies in Kadyrov’s honor (“the rebirth and further development of the Chechen Republic became [for him] a sacred duty,” they explain), and local people call bulletins on the Grozny channel “Ramzan News” because they are dominated by his latest triumphs: Ramzan handing out apartments to homeless families, Ramzan dancing the lezginka, Ramzan leaping from his bed in the middle of the night to check on a construction site.

Any meeting with a state official involves a five-minute paean of praise to Kadyrov. An essay competition launched last month in Chechen universities — titled “The Hero of Our Time. The Leader and Patriot” — offers the following parameters: “The authors should write about the outstanding personality of the Chechen people and the person who has made a huge contribution to the republic’s revival and stability, about the leader of the Chechen youth, the Hero of Russia, Ramzan Kadyrov.”

Judging Kadyrov’s true popularity amid this sycophancy is difficult because independent polls are scarce and elections in Chechnya are fixed even more extravagantly than in the rest of Russia. (In 2007, the republic reported an improbable 99 percent of the vote for United Russia, the Putin-led party that supports Kadyrov.)

It’s fair to say he does have some fervent supporters. On March 7, a team of Chechen ministers and retired Russian professionals led by Kadyrov played a friendly soccer match in Grozny against Brazilian stars who won the 1994 and 2002 World Cups.

I sat in the stands next to Khamzat Dzhabrailov, 54, a former Soviet middleweight boxing champion who coached Kadyrov — once a keen amateur boxer. “He is my boy, my beautiful boy,” Khamzat told me. “He is brave, strong, wise, energetic, good, handsome.” On the far side of the pitch, members of the Ramzan Patriot Club were chanting their hero’s name.

Other Chechens, it seems, find the blooming personality cult around Kadyrov distasteful, but not enough to discount him outright.

“It may be hard for you to imagine just what it was like here a decade ago,” a small-business owner in his early 40s told me. “There were bombs raining down. There were bandits kidnapping and beheading people. It was a terrifying time. Our leaders promised much but delivered nothing.

“Now we have Ramzan, and we have to put up with this constant show, this circus. He is poorly educated and can hardly speak Russian. But he rebuilt the city in record time. Universities are working; people see some prospects for the future. You can walk safely in the streets, you can book a package tour for a few hundred bucks and fly to Egypt, you can go to the skating rink. This means a lot for a nation that suffered so many years of war.”

Then there are Kadyrov’s staunch opponents, unready for such a Faustian pact. They allude to the more sinister elements of Kadyrov’s regime. Their voices are quiet for now, yet they may be more numerous than it appears. Chechnya is traditionally an egalitarian society where it is not appropriate to idolize a leader. A Chechen NGO-worker in his 20s told me, “I can’t bear all the adulation and sucking up to Kadyrov. But it is extremely risky to stand up to him publicly.”

Others point to ongoing (if diminished) kidnappings and torture allegedly committed by the kadyrovtsy, former militiamen who were absorbed into official security units. “Those continue just as they have for years,” one experienced human rights activist told me. In the most recent case, a 22-year-old university student in Grozny, Said Sigauri, was detained on March 2, the same day his brother, a suspected militant, was killed in a special operation in Grozny. Said managed to call his parents to say he was at a police station in Chechnya’s Sunzhensky district, but he hasn’t been heard from since. “Each day we lose a little more hope that he is OK,” said the activist.

There is no direct evidence to implicate Kadyrov himself, but the killings of a string of his opponents — including journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, and award-winning human rights activist Natalya Estemirova in 2009 — have provoked anger all over the world. A verdict is expected soon in the murder trial of the killers of Umar Israilov, a former bodyguard to Kadyrov who became his critic and was gunned down in Vienna, Austria, two years ago. Telephone records show the assassins made a series of phone calls to an associate of Kadyrov shortly after the shooting. (Kadyrov denied any involvement in Israilov’s death at a press briefing I attended last week, saying, “Why should I be bothered with what happens in Australia [sic]? If I’d wanted him dead, I could have had him killed in Chechnya and no one would have known.”)

Perhaps most ironically, while Kadyrov has been the Kremlin’s ally in stamping out religious extremists, his rule in Chechnya has seen a creeping Islamization, unknown elsewhere in the North Caucasus.

Polygyny (illegal under Russian law) is now approved in unofficial ceremonies by mullahs, sale of alcohol has been restricted to a two-hour time window each day, and the muftiat has issued strict advisories on women’s attire that have been enforced, it appears, by informal militia.

Last June, Kheda (not her real name), a 30-year-old Chechen woman, was walking down Putin Avenue with two female friends. None had tied on the headscarves that most but not all women favor here, and all wore skirts that grazed the knee. Suddenly two cars with tinted windows jolted to a halt beside the pavement.

The windows were rolled down, Kheda told me when we met last week, and she had time to notice a man in a camouflage uniform in the second car. As someone shouted, “Cover your hair, harlots!” the man in camo aimed a weapon at her, and Kheda felt something hit her stomach and her thigh. She looked down to see her skirt splattered with pink paint. Her friends had been shot, too, with a blue substance. The men — who had shot the women with paintball guns — laughed and sped away.

“I was shocked and humiliated,” said Kheda, who rushed with her friends to a pharmacy, where they tried to clean off the paint before calling a taxi and going home.

One former student of Chechen State University described to me how security guards at the entrance often forced female students to open their coats to demonstrate their skirts were long enough. An ethnic Russian woman told me she was prevented from entering a ministry building in central Grozny without a headscarf.

These were not isolated incidents. Human Rights Watch published a report on March 10 titled “You Dress According to Their Rules,” which records statements from more than 30 victims and witnesses of harassment over women’s clothing last summer.

After the paintball incidents, Kadyrov reportedly told a TV interviewer he had not ordered the attacks but would “express appreciation” to the shooters if he found out who they were. A woman who had provoked such an attack “should have disappeared from Earth, closed herself in her house, and never come out, because she had behaved in such an inappropriate way,” he added.

At the press briefing last week, the Chechen leader was more cautious. He summoned a female advisor who said meekly, “I wear a headscarf, first of all, because I am a Muslim woman and I am obliged to wear it before the Almighty. No one forces me to do this; I do it with pleasure.”

Yet the moral conservatism seems to be growing. Kadyrov himself, who was fond of crocodile skin jackets and baseball caps only a few years ago, is now most often seen in tunics stamped with the crescent moon and star of Islam.

Lena Afonina, 25, who worked in an advertising and design studio in Grozny until last year, told me the agency was recently approached by business-owners who had been informed that their placards of women were unsuitable. “Before it was OK for them to use pictures where a girl’s hair sticks out from under the headscarf, but now they’ve been told by some sort of commission that the hair has to be completely concealed,” she said. “It was hard for us to find them such images because Chechen women weren’t dressing like that before.”

Toward the end of my stay in Grozny, I visited the Center for Spiritual-Moral Upbringing and Development, an organization set up by Kadyrov to give young people guidance on pure living.

Vakha Khashkhanov, the director, greeted me cordially wearing the velvet skullcap favored by Chechen Sufis. He denied there was any link between state or religious authorities and the paintball attackers. The perpetrators were “hooligans” who should be caught and punished, he said.

Khashkhanov said it was not true that guards at educational establishments and state buildings had instructions to monitor women’s dress. 

However, he added: “It can happen that, let’s say, a security guard might address a woman politely, in our traditional Chechen way, which expresses respect to her and her whole family, her parents, her brothers, saying, ‘Sister, please put on a headscarf; be more beautiful and put it on.’ But only to the ones who are really vulgarly dressed.”

*This sentence has been updated; due to an editing error, it originally named Nazran as the Ingush capital.

Tom Parfitt is a fellow of the London-based Royal Geographical Society and a former public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. His trip is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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