The Kremlin’s Chechen Dragon

Ramzan Kadyrov.jpg

Chechen President Ramzan A. Kadyrov, with a portrait of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, February, 2009

In the summer of 2004, two years and four months before she was gunned down in the entrance to her Moscow apartment, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya made a bold visit to Chechnya to interview 27-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov, who had recently become (with the Kremlin’s blessing) the republic’s de-facto leader. It proved to be a harrowing experience. When they met face to face, Kadyrov could not contain his rage at Politkovskaya for reporting on his brutal rise to power, even threatening to have her shot. Politkovskaya concluded later that “a little dragon has been raised by the Kremlin. Now they need to feed it. Otherwise it will spit fire.”

Politkovskaya was all too right. Since becoming president of Chechnya in 2007, Kadyrov has made the republic into his own fiefdom, which he rules by violence and terror. He has also, apparently, had his gunmen carry out a series of brazen killings of his perceived enemies in Moscow, Dubai, Istanbul and the North Caucasus.

Until recently, the Kremlin, which has provided military and economic support to Kadyrov’s regime, consistently brushed off the murder allegations against him. Since April, prosecutors in two separate cases—a murder in Vienna and a murder attempt in Moscow—have for the first time implicated Kadyrov directly. And in the weeks since those revelations, the Kremlin leadership appears to be showing misgivings about its unconditional support for Kadyrov. How these cases play out could have profound effects on the future of Moscow’s Chechen policy.

It has long been known that Moscow has allowed Kadyrov to run the Chechen Republic with ruthless force, facilitating his extensive cult of personality and funding his lavish lifestyle while ignoring the alarmingly frequent kidnappings, disappearances, and torture of those suspected of opposing his rule. But Kadyrov’s bloody vendettas have not been limited to rival Chechen clans. Indeed, it now appears that he has been going after anyone who draws attention to the shocking human rights abuses in Chechnya committed under his auspices—and that Politkovskaya herself may have been one of his first targets.

The list of likely victims is chilling: In January 2009, there was the Moscow shooting of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov (together with a journalist friend) who had pursued legal cases against Kadyrov. That same month Umar Israilov, a former member of Kadyrov’s security team who was granted asylum in Austria and subsequently made shocking allegations of human rights abuses against Kadyrov, was killed by Chechen gunmen in Vienna. And in July 2009 came the murder of Politkovskaya’s close colleague, Natalia Estemirova, who had been documenting the widespread abductions and extra-judicial executions by Kadyrov’s counter-insurgency forces for Novaya gazeta, Human Rights Watch, and Memorial. Estemirova was kidnapped by four men in broad daylight as she left her Grozny apartment. Hours later, her body, riddled with bullets, was found in a ditch in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.

After the Politkovskaya killing, then-Russian President Vladimir Putin went out of his way to point out that the murder hurt Kadyrov “much more than any newspaper article [i.e. those written by Politkovskaya] could do.” Last summer, when Estemirova’s family, friends, and colleagues gathered in Grozny to mourn her on the 40th day of her death (a Russian orthodox tradition), Putin flew to the Chechen capitol to attend a state ceremony with Kadyrov by his side. Significantly, Kadyrov was allowed to take personal control of the investigation into Estemirova’s murder and there have been no arrests.

Moscow has also rejected demands by the Dubai government for the extradition of Kadyrov’s cousin Adam Delimkhanov, a member of the Russian parliament and Putin’s United Russia Party, who they accuse of having organized the March 2009 murder of yet another Kadyrov opponent, Sulim Yamadayev, who was a member of a rival Chechen clan. (On April 12, a Dubai court sentenced two men of Central Asian origin to life imprisonment for the killing.)

But how long can Moscow ignore the mounting evidence against its Chechen puppet? In April the counter-terrorism department of the Vienna police handed over a confidential 214-page report to Austrian prosecutors in which they named Kadyrov and his top aide, Shaa Turlayev, as the “principal offenders” in the January 2009 murder of Israilov, the former member of Kadyrov’s security guard. According to Israilov’s widow, Turlayev appeared in Vienna shortly before the murder and tried unsuccessfully to meet with her husband. In addition, the man charged with organizing the killing locally, a Chechen refugee who now calls himself Otto Kaltenbrunner, placed a call to Turlayev immediately after the murder. Moreover, a copy of Turlayev’s passport was found in the getaway car, along with an electronic airline ticket that he used to travel to Austria. As a representative of Human Rights Watch puts it: “the conclusions reached by the Austrian Prosecutor’s Office about Ramzan Kadyrov…should prompt the Russian government to finally take the necessary steps to restore the rule of law in Chechnya.”


Meanwhile, Kadyrov’s Kremlin backers have also been facing pressure from a Moscow investigation into an attempted murder in June 2009. The victim of the failed attempt was Isa Yamadayev, the brother of Salim Yamadayev, the murder victim in Dubai, and of Ruslan Yamadayev, a State Duma Deputy who was killed in Moscow in 2008. In April of this year the Moscow District Court began holding secret hearings about the case. Incredibly, a transcript and video of the interrogation of the accused would-be killer ended up in the hands of the intended victim, Yamadayev, who leaked it to a major Russian paper, Moskovskii Komsomolets. During his questioning, the accused, Khavash Yusupov, confessed to the crime and claimed that he was hired by none other than Shaa Turlayev. Yusupov said that Turlayev took him for a meeting with Kadyrov, who ordered the killing.

It remains to be seen whether Austria will indict Kadyrov when it issues formal charges in the Vienna murder in a few weeks, and what the Moscow Court will decide to do about Kadyrov. But the fact that, in the Moscow case, highly damaging testimony about the Chechen president and his top advisor was allowed to appear in the Russian media suggests that some members of the Kremlin elite may have decided that Kadyrov needs to be reined in. Could Russian President Dmitry Medvedev be among them? In contrast to Putin, Medvedev has expressed strong concerns about the unsolved murders and the problem of human rights abuses in the Caucasus. Responding to the Estemirova case last summer, Medvedev said it was “obvious” that she was killed because of her human rights work and expressed his personal condolences to her family and friends.

In January, Medvedev appointed a presidential envoy, Alexander Khloponin, to a newly formed North Caucasus Federal District, which some observers interpreted as an effort to exert Moscow’s control over the region, especially Chechnya. More recently, on May 19, Medvedev invited human rights activists to a two and a half –hour meeting in Moscow, in which Estemirova’s murder was discussed. It was not the first time the Kremlin has met with human rights advocates. But it was a departure for Medvedev because the meeting was devoted entirely to the situation in the troubled North Caucasus. With Khloponin at his side, Medvedev listened to grim details of the abuses attributed to Kadyrov’s counter-insurgency forces in Chechnya and to the concerns that surround unsolved murders like Estemirova’s.

“If you think I don’t know some of the facts,” Medvedev told the participants in the meeting, “well, that’s not the case. I know more than anyone else here because it is my job to know. Have no doubt. I know some very sad things.” In what seemed to be a reference to Kadyrov, who routinely ridicules the efforts of human rights workers, Medvedev also said that political leaders in the Caucasus who do not engage in a dialogue with non-governmental organizations in the region “must ultimately leave.”

However sincere Medvedev might be (and there are many skeptics), at the moment he is not in a position to topple Kadyrov without the concurrence of Putin and members of his powerful Federal Security Service, who installed Kadyrov as the leader of Chechnya. And it appears that the Putin has been unwilling to rein in Kadyrov in part because he fears that doing so would create even more instability in the North Caucasus region (and possibly more terrorist bombings in places like Moscow).

As Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, observed: “The impunity and omnipotence of Ramzan Kadyrov depends on the support of…Putin. As long as Putin supports him nobody will touch a hair on Kadyrov’s head, even if he kills us all.” Perhaps the recent revelations about Kadyrov will finally convince Putin and his colleagues that it is time for Kadyrov to go.

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