A Blast from the Past in Grozny

A Blast from the Past in Grozny

On a recent afternoon, during a visit to Grozny, the capital city of Russia’s Chechen Republic, I walked with several local reporters down Putin Avenue, a street that was named after the Russian leader in the early years of this century, not long after the Kremlin’s armed forces succeeded in tamping down a long-simmering rebellion and installing a Moscow-friendly government.

The Chechen journalists and I were walking to a monument dedicated to “Journalists Who Died For Freedom Of Speech.” On it was written an inscription in Chechen: “Your words remain instead of you.” That’s a line that has considerable significance in a place where more than 20 reporters have been killed since December 1994, when Russian tanks under then-President Boris Yeltsin rolled into the republic to crush Chechen separatists. As recent events have demonstrated, though, the traumas of the two decades of conflict that subsequently ensued have yet to be laid to rest.

The path in the Park of Journalists was still covered with empty shell cartridges from the fighting on Dec. 4, when a dozen jihadist fighters attacked Grozny. At one edge of the park stood the blackened ruin of the nine-floor Press Building, a visible reminder that the war refuses to go away. Until it was destroyed in the fighting, the building hosted newsrooms for 20 local publications.

A couple of blocks away, a group of teachers were discussing the tragic fate of Public School 20, a 65-year-old institution that has been repeatedly destroyed in the course of Chechnya’s recent wars. The school, rebuilt most recently in 2008, now lies in ruin once again: Some of the terrorists who escaped from the Press Building ended up fighting another battle with the security forces here the next day. “I’m 52 years old,” said Fatima Gaziyeva, a teacher at the school. “The war took two decades of my life, and I’m not sure what to say to my students today when they ask me who attacked our cities, who killed 300,000 Chechens, and why. The twentieth anniversary of the war is probably something you talk about in Moscow, but we live in it. It’s our reality.”

When I asked my local journalist colleagues about freedom of speech in Chechnya, they just laughed: There’s only one person in Chechnya who’s allowed to say whatever he wants, and that’s the republic’s president, Ramzan Kadyrov. In a recent Twitter post, Kadyrov wrote that “the time when parents bore no responsibility for the actions of their sons or daughters is gone for good. In Chechnya everyone will be held responsible!” In the days that followed, unknown men in masks burned down six houses belonging to the relatives of the suspected fighters. When human rights activist Igor Kalyapin convened a press conference in Moscow today to criticize Kadyrov’s illegal vows of collective punishment, Kadyrov supporters bombarded him with eggs.

The grounds for Kadyrov’s fury are clear enough: The insurgents killed 14 policemen and injured dozens of people, and the Chechen leader took it personally. “If even one person from a particular area turns out to be among the militants, all leaders of that district — secular, spiritual, and security — will have to resign,” Kadyrov said.

In 2009, human rights activists and journalists accused Kadyrov of personally threatening Natalia Estemirova, an internationally recognized Chechen human rights campaigner. Natasha, as we called her, was abducted from the courtyard of her house in Grozny and shot dead. Kadyrov denied any involvement.

This time, Kadyrov foresaw that his threats would prompt a storm of criticism from human rights groups, whom he has often treated as his personal enemies. So he decided to address his critics directly, saying that he was (in the words of the Russian press agency ITAR-TASS) “not interested in the opinion of any people or the so-called human rights organizations who were silently watching NATO planes and Western-trained militants killing millions of Muslims in Syria and Iraq.” His critics respond that Kadyrov’s often unjustified and illegal actions are a prime motivation for young Chechens to leave for Syria and join the Islamic State.

The echo of the two Chechen wars can be heard throughout the Middle East, in the North and South Caucasus, and even in Ukraine. Akhmed Zakayev, the former prime minister of the unrecognized Chechen republic that emerged after the First Chechen War, said in a recent interview that Chechens in Western Europe support Ukraine “in its struggle for independence.” Around 50 former Chechen insurgents have joined two Ukrainian battalions fighting against the rebels in eastern Ukraine, while pro-Kadyrov Chechens have signed up to fight with the Russian-backed separatists there. That means that the two-decade-old Chechen conflict has shifted to Europe, which can hardly be seen as good news for anyone. “It could be very dangerous for Ukraine to find itself fighting a war with uncontrolled groups of Chechens coming there to participate in their own version of jihad,” Grigory Shvedov recently told me. (He’s the editor of Caucasian Knot, a website that tracks conflict in the Caucasus.)

Kadyrov may have absolute power in Chechnya, but he still hasn’t been unable to silence the drumbeat of journalistic and human rights reports blaming him and other officials for torture, abductions, and killings. First as deputy prime minister, then as prime minister, and now as president (since 2007, when Putin appointed him to the post), he’s been accused of human rights violations again and again. Last week, activists from Joint Mobile Group, a human rights organization that tracks human rights abuses in Chechnya, told me that, over the past six months, there has been a growing number of torture victims in the area where the Dec. 4 attackers appear to have started their journey, in three hired taxis, to Grozny.

Sergei Babinets, a lawyer with Joint Mobile Group, recalled a recent meeting between Kadyrov and representatives of the group. Kadryov screamed at the activists, denouncing them as “enemies of Chechen people.” Yet despite the risk of murder or abduction, the group continues to operate. 50 lawyers from around Russia periodically visit Chechnya, tracking accusations of abuses passed along by local people and making representations to the law enforcement authorities. “Chechen top officials publicly threaten Muslims here in ways that often cause radicalization,” Babinets said. “The authorities would probably do a better job of fighting terrorism by reinforcing the independence of the courts and the judiciary.”

In Chechnya neither reporters nor human rights activists have had much luck in getting their message across to Kadyrov. Yet civil society groups persist in reaching out to the authorities and demanding justice. Kalyapin, who heads a non-government organization called the Committee Against Torture, earned Kadyrov’s ire earlier this week by filing an official complaint to Russia’s federal prosecutor in which he accused the Chechen president of violating federal law by threatening to punish the families of militants. The Russian constitution, he noted, stipulates that citizens are presumed innocent until convicted in a court of law — a principle openly flouted by Kadyrov’s demands for collective punishment. (Kadyrov has responded to Kalyapin’s move by accusing the activist of providing financial support to terrorists.)

Entirely aside from that fact, though, Kadyrov’s threat to “expel” the relatives of militants also has an ominous historical resonance. His language is likely to remind many of his fellow Chechens of the 1944 roundup and transfer of virtually the entire Chechen population to distant parts of the Soviet Union, resulting in the death of thousands. “Deportation” is a word that Chechens associate with Stalin.

ELENA FITKULINA/AFP/Getty Images