The Chechen government’s brutal campaign against gays has understandably aroused a strong reaction in the West. In recent months, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a notorious strongman closely allied with the Kremlin, has directed his police forces to round up gay men, torture them, and sometimes even kill them. In mid-April, former US vice-president Joe Biden said that he was “disgusted and appalled” by reports of the brutal crackdown and urged President Donald Trump to raise the issue directly with the Kremlin, though Trump did not respond. And on May 2, in a meeting with Russian President Putin in Sochi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed her concerns about the persecution of Chechen gays: “I…spoke about the very negative report about what is happening to homosexuals in Chechnya and asked Mr. President to exert his influence to ensure that minorities’ rights are protected.” Numerous other European governments have weighed in as well. Unfortunately, Western pressure, even from such a powerful leader as Merkel, is unlikely to make a difference. This is because of the Kremlin’s complicated relationship with Kadyrov, whose rule has brought Chechnya finally under Russian control, but has also been characterized by rampant corruption and widespread human rights abuses.
In fact, far from reining in Kadyrov, the Russian government has stood by as critics of the anti-gay campaign have come under fire. Russian journalist Elena Milashina, who wrote the April 1 Novaya gazeta article that first exposed the attacks on gays in Chechnya, has received death threats and was forced to flee Russia and the staff of the radio station Ekho Moskvy was threatened for supporting her. Late last week Milashina gave an interview to Voice of America (in Russian), describing how the campaign got started in February: a gay Chechen man was arrested on bogus drug charges. On his cell phone, police found the telephone numbers of a network of gay men, whom they then secretly arrested. They had these detainees keep their cell phones on, and rounded up those who called them. In all, Milashina said, 160 men were arrested, fifty were killed, and most of the rest were savagely beaten.
Why would the Russian government tolerate these abuses, which have been so heavily criticized and seem to serve no political purpose? Indeed, Kadyrov’s reckless reign in Chechnya is deeply resented by many in Russian law-enforcement agencies. The answer is straightforward: Putin and Kadyrov have long had a Faustian bargain. Putin counts on Kadyrov’s ruthlessness to keep potential unrest in his Muslim-majority republic, where the Kremlin has fought two wars, from coming to the surface. In return, the Kremlin funnels vast sums of money into Chechnya—by one estimate one billion dollars annually, much of which goes into Kadyrov’s own pocket. Kadyrov runs the republic as his personal fiefdom.
If Putin moved against the Chechen leader he would have to eliminate Kadyrov’s large extended family and the loyal men who form part of his notorious private army, the so-called Kadyrovtsy. Also, Kadyrov’s public diatribes against the West and his open threats directed at Russian opposition members and independent journalists serve Putin’s purposes: because he is perceived to act with considerable autonomy, he can do things that the Kremlin itself may want done but does not want to be directly associated with. As one Russia expert put it: “In many ways, Kadyrov is the Putin regime’s collective id. He manifests its basic instinct. Its intrinsic aggression. Its deepest, darkest desires.”
When Putin met with Kadyrov in the Kremlin on April 19 to discuss the socio-economic situation in Chechnya they talked about the allegations of violence against gays only briefly. Kadyrov, who has claimed that there are no gays in Chechnya, told Putin that the whole thing was a provocation. According to Russian journalist Anna Arutunyan: “The body language during the meeting …[was] something to behold. He [Putin] drew something with his finger on the table, gave Kadyrov a trademark death stare that quickly dissolved into an expression of abject hopelessness, and then clutched the arm of his chair as though his aeroplane had entered a zone of turbulence.”
The next day Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said that the Kremlin believed Kadyrov. Peskov went on: “Where are these people? Where do they live? The fact of the matter is—we are talking about phantom complaints.” After Putin’s meeting with Merkel, the Kremlin reluctantly ordered the Russian Investigative Committee to look into the claims about the anti-gay campaign, but this was clearly a half-hearted gesture. As Milashina said (and many others agree) Kadyrov can do whatever he wants in Chechnya: “Today, it is gays, tomorrow will be people who put on the wrong clothes, the day after tomorrow, people with the wrong hair color.” The Kremlin allows Kadyrov free rein.
Significantly, Milashina noted that that the Kremlin’s hands-off policy with Kadyrov became especially noticeable after the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in February 2015. Russian investigators already established that some of the perpetrators of that murder belonged to Kadyrov’s elite Sever Battalion, and it is widely assumed that they acted under Kadyrov’s orders. The Chechen who is suspected of organizing the crime, also a member of the Sever Battalion, is living freely in Chechnya and has not been called for questioning, despite the entreaties of the Nemtsov family. (The trial is still going on in a Moscow military court.) As far back as 2002, according to Nemtsov’s 2007 autobiography, Kadyrov publicly threatened to kill Nemtsov because the latter, while attending a conference in Chechnya, suggested that Chechens needed a representative form of government, rather than the autocratic system that existed under Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov. In Nemtsov’s words: “I can’t say that I was frightened, because the Chechens who were around him started to say that Ramzan was joking. But in his eyes I saw that it was no joke. In his eyes I saw hatred.”
Putin, who gave Kadyrov a prestigious state award soon after the Nemtsov murder, seems likely to have sanctioned, or even ordered, the crime. According to veteran Kremlinologist Andrei Piontkovsky: “No one will ever believe that Kadyrov could instruct his thugs to liquidate Nemtsov on his own initiative without Putin’s wish.”
Kadyrov would also have had the support of Viktor Zoltov, Putin’s former chief bodyguard who is now head of the Russian president’s newly-formed, powerful National Guard and who oversaw the Sever Battalion at the time Nemtsov was killed. Zolotov has had a long and close relationship with Kadyrov. But as Piontkovsky points out, other members of Putin’s elite, particularly leaders of the FSB, want Kadyrov out of the picture, and they are hoping that Kadyrov will be incriminated in the Nemtsov murder, even though they allowed it to happen: “He [Kadyrov] is hated by all heads of law enforcement agencies (with the exception of Zolotov) and his whole position, and simply his life, is indebted exclusively to Putin….From the very beginning the siloviki [members of the security and military elite] had extremely negative views toward Putin’s ‘Kadyrov project,’ partly because they viewed Kadyrov as having deprived them of ‘victory’ in Chechnya. Only the personal union of Putin and Kadyrov keeps them from unleashing the third Chechen war. And their long-standing goal is to break this union.”
But the siloviki face an uphill battle in trying to get rid of Kadyrov. And they are no doubt aware of the dangers of doing so. According to the lawyer for the Nemtsov family, Vadim Prokhorov, “In general, people who are involved in a real political fight know full well that it’s much more dangerous to challenge Ramzan Kadyrov or Viktor Zolotov in public than, say, Vladimir Putin. I’ve never heard about anybody who criticized Putin in public apologizing and taking back what they said—thank heavens! But people apologize to Kadyrov like their lives depended on it—and with good reason.”
Despite Kadyrov’s murderous reputation among human rights groups both in Russia and the West, he retains a strong popular following in Russia. Just last week the results of an April 2017 poll taken by the respected Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) were released. Fifty-five percent of the 1,800 respondents said that Kadyrov is working for the good of Russia, and the numbers of those who say they respect him has risen from 31 percent in 2016 to 42 percent.
Many Russians, who are fed a constant stream of anti-Western propaganda, seem to appreciate Kadyrov’s outbursts. (He has more than two million followers on Instagram, where in early 2016 he posted a video showing two leading democratic oppositionists, Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Kara-Murza, in a sniper’s crosshair and stated that “whoever doesn’t get it will get it.”) Indeed, Kremlin-sponsored television has actively promoted Kadyrov’s favorable image. As The New York Times noted late last year: “With Russia marketing itself globally as the anti-Western beacon and the home of conservative values, Mr. Kadyrov is portrayed as a charismatic man rooted in family, nature and tradition.” The Times even suggested the possibility of Kadyrov succeeding Putin as president. While such an outcome may seem remote, Kadyrov’s high profile as a public figure suggests the ominous long-term consequences of Putin’s government and his penchant for cultivating unsavory leaders. Meanwhile, Chechnya’s gays, by the dozens, have fled the republic.