Tag Archives: Chechnya

Chechens Now Fighting On Both Sides In Ukraine

Eighteen years after the signing of the Khasavyurt Accord that ended the 1994-96 Chechen war, a veteran Chechen field commander has issued a timely reminder that there are still three sides to the ongoing struggle for the hearts and minds of the Chechen people.

In a statement dated August 28, Isa Munayev appeals to the United States and “the countries of the democratic world” to provide “comprehensive military assistance” to the Ukrainian people, whom Munayev describes as victims of Russian imperial aggression, just as the Chechens were 20 years ago.

Munayev identified himself in that statement as commander of the Dzhokhar Dudayev international volunteer peacekeeping battalion and a brigadier general of the armed forces of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) of which Dudayev was the first president.

He spoke to RFE/RL’s Radio Marsho a week ago, shortly before he travelled to Ukraine to show “international support for the Ukrainian people.” The strength of his battalion, and who is bankrolling it, is not known.

Now in his late 40s, Munayev played a key role in the defense of Grozny at the start of the 1999-2000 war, and continued fighting after the resistance forces retreated south to the mountains, acquiring a reputation for his courage and tactical skills.

In late 2007, however, he distanced himself from ChRI President Doku Umarov following the latter’s abandonment of the cause of Chechen independence and proclamation of a Caucasus Emirate. Munayev left Chechnya soon afterward, but continued to serve until December 2008 as ChRI prosecutor-general.

Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount of the presence on the side of the pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine of hundreds of fighters sent by Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov.

Those fighters are apparently primarily volunteers from among the various police and security forces subordinate to Kadyrov, who has consistently denied that there are any “Chechen battalions” in Ukraine, even after the “Financial Times” quoted a fighter named Zelimkhan who said he and his comrades in arms had been sent to Ukraine in mid-May on Kadyrov’s orders.

Kadyrov has admitted, however, that a few dozen Chechen volunteers from among the 2 million (according to his estimate) Chechens living outside Russia have travelled to Ukraine on their own initiative to fight, and that a handful of them have been killed.

Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov similarly said in early June that 25 residents of his republic had travelled to Ukraine to fight, of whom four had been killed. In a subsequent interview, Yevkurov, a former Russian military-intelligence officer, affirmed his readiness to head to Ukraine himself “to defend those who are being humiliated and killed.”

In contrast, both the Defense Ministry and the presidential and government press service of the largely unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia in May denied media reports that the breakaway Georgian region had sent volunteers to fight in Ukraine.

How many “kadyrovtsy” either volunteered or were sent to Ukraine is unclear, but separate, unconfirmed casualty reports suggest the figure may have been as high as 1,000.

From left: Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov accompanied by Russian journalists Oleg Sidyakin and Marat Saichenko addresses media following release from captivity in Ukraine, Grozny, Chechnya, May 25, 2014.
From left: Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov accompanied by Russian journalists Oleg Sidyakin and Marat Saichenko addresses media following release from captivity in Ukraine, Grozny, Chechnya, May 25, 2014.

Between 35-45 corpses were reportedly sent back to Chechnya  in late May, and between 120-150 in August. In addition, Ukrainian military sources claimed to have killed some 200 Chechens near Slovyansk in late June.

Other reports, also unconfirmed, suggest that Kadyrov’s men did not distinguish themselves in battle.

There have been several such reports over the past few weeks that Chechen units fighting under the command of Russian officers in eastern Ukraine have been disbanded and sent home for cowardice and/or desertion, surrendered to Ukrainian government forces, or asked for safe passage to retreat to the Russian border.

Kadyrov immediately rejected as untrue reports that any Chechens had surrendered: he declared that “once a Chechen takes up arms, he doesn’t surrender.”

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An unholy alliance is rattling the Kremlin

A high-profile alliance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leader of the Chechnya region of Russia is starting to fray. And outspoken Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was mysteriously gunned down in front of the Kremlin last month, reportedly knew all about it.

Critics of Putin say that over the past decade the Russian president has empowered 38-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, “to effectively create the Islamic republic that Chechen separatists had dreamed of — albeit one entirely reliant on Moscow for financial support,” The New York Times reported this week.

The Times notes that Putin has allowed Kadyrov to rule the region for eight years while “seemingly turning a blind eye to assassinations, torture and other human rights abuses.” And critics, including Nemtsov, were warning about what happens if the warlord turned strongman’s ambitions for power spin out of Putin’s control.

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social mediaKadyrov leads his “Kadyrovtsy” troops in chants of “God is great!” at a rally in the Chechen capital’s new soccer arena.

“I cannot understand what Putin expects when arming 20,000 Kadyrovtsy gathered today in the stadium in Grozny,” Nemtsov wrote in Facebook post in December. “What will happen next? The country is entering a crisis. There is not enough money for anything, including the support of regions.

“And the unspoken contract between Putin and Kadyrov — money in exchange for loyalty — ends. And where will 20,000 Kadyrovtsy go? What will they demand? How will they behave? When will they come to Moscow?”

It seems Nemtsov was on to something.

People initially suspected Kremlin involvement in Nemtsov’s murder, but now five Chechens have been arrested in connection with the killing, and fingers are starting to point at Kadyrov as the possible architect of the hit.

One of the suspects arrested is a former deputy commander from one of Kadyrov’s security battalions, which operate independently of federal authorities. Kadyrov praised the deputy as a “real Russian patriot” after he was arrested and implied that he wasn’t guilty of taking a hit out on Nemtsov.

Moreover, four people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg that Putin was furious when he learned about what had happened.

nemstov
REUTERS/Pavel BednyakovThe covered body of Boris Nemtsov, with St. Basil’s Cathedral, right, and the Kremlin walls, left, in Moscow, February 28, 2015.

Putin is “dealing with a significant internal challenge: It’s extremely unlikely he ordered Nemtsov’s killing, but it was clearly an inside job,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider earlier this month. “Dealing with that is surely his top priority.”

Radio Free Europe noted that on March 16 — the day Putin reappeared from a mysterious 10-day absence from public view — a law enforcement official told Interfax that Nemtsov’s murder had been reclassified from a “contract killing” to a “hate crime.”

That designation all but squashes the investigation into who ordered the hit on Nemtsov. So while it’s possible that the Kremlin’s investigation might have ended up implicating Kadyrov in the murder, now it seems that possibility has been taken off the table.

In any case, Nemtsov supporters are now saying the investigation has “exposed a dangerous rift between the chiefs of the security services in Moscow and the brash Chechen leader,” The Times says.

Kadyrov putin
REUTERS/Maxim ShemetovParticipants hold a cartoon depicting Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov as they attend a “Russian March” demonstration on National Unity Day in Moscow, November 4, 2012.

‘The FSB hate Ramzan’

“The F.S.B. [the post-Soviet successor to the KGB] hate Ramzan because they are unable to control him,” Alexey Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Times. “He does whatever he wants, including in Moscow. Nobody can arrest members of his team if there is no agreement with Putin.”

Some experts think that Nemtsov’s murder fits this context.

chechnya

“Putin had to make a choice. Either feed Kadyrov to the FSB-men, or give up the FSB to Kadyrov,” political analyst Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook. “It’s a difficult and unpleasant choice … And he chose the one and only thing he could choose: Kadyrov.”

An unnamed source close to the Kremlin told Bloomberg of another theory about Nemtsov’s murder: that rogue FSB agents killed Nemtsov in the hopes of implicating Kadyrov, whose increasingly audacious actions have become a pain for officials in Moscow.

“Putin has become a hostage to his own policy of radicalizing supporters so they can spring to action whenever he needs them,” Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Bloomberg. “His authoritarianism is sliding into decentralized terror. His backers think he’s much more radical than he really is and are acting without clear orders.”

By giving Kadyrov the power to kill extremists in Chechnya in order to stabilize the region — as well as cover to assassinate perceived critics in the capital — Putin may have inadvertently created a monster that the Kremlin can’t contain.

moscow solider russia rally
A policeman stands in front of participants of an “Anti-Maidan” rally against the 2014 Kiev uprising, which ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, in Moscow, February 21, 2015.

Nemtsov’s supporters say Russian propaganda implicity encourages violence against Putin critics, according to Bloomberg. The Kremlin reportedly approved a rally in Moscow during which tens of thousands of people demanded that Putin’s critics be “purged.”

What happens next?

It’s unclear whether there will be ramifications for whoever ordered the hit on Nemtsov. Or how the murder is rattling the Kremlin.

While Putin was absent from public view, Kadyrov reaffirmed his undying loyalty to the leader in an Instagram post, writing: “I will always be his faithful companion, regardless of whether he is president or not. To give one’s life for such a person is an easy task.”

Radio Free Europe points out that this could have been a veiled threat: “I am loyal, Kadyrov seemed to be saying. But others may not be. And taking me down carries risks.”

Russia: We warned the Yanks about Islamic State

A joke making the rounds among Russian officials and hacks who take a keen interest in what is going on in the Middle East these days goes something like this: How will the Yanks deal with the Islamic State group?

They will create “Islamic State 2”, a bigger and better armed group, and let it deal with the original Islamic State group. And what happens when “Islamic State 2” turns against them as it happened with the original Islamic State? They will create “Islamic State 3”, and so on.

But seriously, the rise and spread of the Islamic State group is no laughing matter. Now that the US and its allies have finally woken up to the dangers of the spread of the extremist group, the worry in Moscow is that the hotheads in the Pentagon and at Nato headquarters in Brussels will decide to start hitting Islamic State positions in Syria along with “other targets” there as well – for instance, Syrian army positions.

US President Barack Obama has already announced his plan to deal with the group, promising to lead a “broad coalition” that will “roll back this terrorist threat”. In Moscow, the fear is that the US will seize this opportunity to intervene in Syria.

The Libyan scenario

According to Valeriy Fenenko from the Moscow Centre for International Security, the US can actually use the presence of the Islamic State group in Syria as a pretext to implement the “Libyan scenario”.

“The Americans are bound to try to compensate for their failure last fall,” he says. “At first, it will be air strikes against terrorists and then, in parallel, it may amount to helping the moderate opposition. The US may start a creeping interference, like it happened in Bosnia,” he said.

In any event, Russian diplomatic efforts are in full swing. According to one Russian source, Moscow is trying to prevent possible air strikes in Syria by the US, UK and others, in the same way it did last year when the danger of air strikes was growing by the day.

“Our people in Arab and European capitals were desperately trying to find some sort of solution last year,” he said. “The threat of a regional war that could escalate into a world war was taken very seriously by the Kremlin. And this scenario is in the cards again.”

The feeling in Moscow is that the recent Nato summit in Newport, Wales, missed out on a great opportunity to involve Russia in finding a solution to the spread of the Islamic State group and other militant groups associated with it across Iraq and the Middle East generally. Not to mention, the very real threat of these violent men entering European countries, and even reaching the US.

“The Russians have been warning the Americans ever since the civil war broke out in Syria that it was very dangerous to arm the opposition there,” one former Russian general who was in charge of anti-terrorist operation told me. “There was no chance that the arms destined for the so-called moderate opposition would not end up with the likes of the Islamic State. Not to mention that lots of it was coming as well from ‘liberated’ Libya.”

The same bandits

What worries Russian officials is the stubborn refusal of the Obama administration to talk to President Bashar al-Assad’s government about a possible joint effort in defeating the Islamic State group in Syria.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said recently, it doesn’t make sense for the West to help the Iraqi government to fight the Islamic State group but deny cooperation to Assad who is fighting “the same bandits”.

Some Russian analysts are saying that the bigger problem of the current crisis is that the Islamic State group runs its recruitment campaigns not just in the Middle East but in Europe as well.

Different figures are cited over the number of Europeans who have joined the ranks of the group in the past several months, but if you consider that the number of fighters has risen – according to Russian estimates, from about 6,000 in June to over 30,000 at present – it can be assumed that we are talking about thousands of young Muslims travelling from Europe to fight in what they believe is a holy war.

The senseless war in Gaza has probably indirectly boosted the Islamic State group’s recruitment campaign, making it easier to claim that the West and Israel are hellbent on wiping out the Muslims in the Middle East. It remains unclear as to why Israel’s armed forces attacked Gaza during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and conducted blanket air strikes that were bound to take a heavy toll on the civilian population.

In the opinion of Russian experts, this looked more like a smokescreen for US failures in Iraq and Libya rather than an attempt to wipe out Hamas’ arsenal and top commanders. From a military point of view, Benjamin Netanyahu’s war achieved absolutely nothing, except perhaps giving Hamas a boost in popularity.

The danger for Russia from the Islamic State group is that some of its members come from Chechnya and Dagestan, the two Muslim republics in the south of Russia, and there is a risk that the group can find sympathisers and supporters there and even start to build a network across the Caucasus.

That is why Moscow is now calling on all parties to make a joint effort to destroy the Islamic State group before it becomes truly international.

However, as the president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems Konstantin Sivkov points out, the military option is only part of the solution in tackling the Islamic State group.

He says that air strikes would not be enough and that it’s crucial to also fight its ideology and cut off its finances that are now flowing through perfectly legal banking channels.  The war against the Islamic State group is fraught with dangers. It might get out of control and drag the whole region into a much wider conflict.

Syria conflict: US strike ‘kills Khorasan Group leader’

Muhsin al-Fadhli
The US had offered a large reward for information leading to al-Fadhli’s capture or death

The United States says it has killed a senior al-Qaeda militant in an air strike in north-western Syria.

A Pentagon statement said Muhsin al-Fadhli was targeted two weeks ago while travelling in a vehicle near Sarmada.

It described Fadhli as the leader of a network of veteran al-Qaeda operatives, known as the “Khorasan Group“, who were allegedly plotting external attacks against the US and its allies.

The Kuwaiti was also reported to have been killed in a US strike last year.

Fadhli was a confidant of Osama Bin Laden and one of the few al-Qaeda members to receive advanced warning of the 11 September 2001 attacks, according to the US.

Reward

Shortly before the US began air strikes on Islamic State (IS) across Syria in September, cruise missiles struck two areas near the northern city of Aleppo. The targets were not IS positions, but buildings allegedly used by the Khorasan Group.

US officials said the shadowy organisation was made up of about 50 veteran militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan, which jihadists refer to as Khorasan, as well as North Africa and Chechnya.

Map showing territorial control in the Syrian conflict
Map showing territorial control in the Syrian conflict

They had been sent to Syria by al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, not to fight the government of President Bashar al-Assad but to “develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations”, the officials claimed.

Fadhli, their alleged leader, was believed to have arrived in Syria in 2013 but kept a low profile.

In 2005, the US treasury department said Fadhli was based in the Gulf and had been providing support to al-Qaeda militants fighting US-led forces in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Seven years later, the state department offered a $7m (£4.5m; €6.4m) reward for information that led to the capture or killing of Fadhli, saying he had become the leader of al-Qaeda’s network in Iran and was responsible for the movement of money and fighters for its operations in the region.

‘Serious’ blow

Reports on social media following September’s missile strikes said Fadhli was among the dozens of militants who were killed, but they were not confirmed by US intelligence agencies.

On Tuesday night, Pentagon spokesman Capt Jeff Davis announced that they were now confident that the 34 year old had been killed “in a kinetic strike” on 8 July near Sarmada, only 7km (4 miles) from Syria’s border with Turkey.

“His death will degrade and disrupt ongoing external operations of al-Qaeda against the United States and its allies and partners,” he added.

Supporters of al-Nusra Front protest against US missile strikes on so-called Khorasan Group militants in Syria (26 September 2014)
Al-Nusra Front and its supporters insist the Khorasan Group does not exist

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who is now at the Brookings Institution, meanwhile told the AFP news agency that Fadhli’s death was a “serious but not fatal” blow to the jihadist network.

Before September’s missile strikes, US intelligence reports indicated that the Khorasan Group was “in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks”.

Classified US assessments said it was collaborating with bomb makers from the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to test ways to get explosives past airport security.

However, some opponents of the Syrian government expressed doubts about whether the Khorasan Group actually existed, saying the US created it to justify attacks on al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, al-Nusra Front.

In May, al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani said in a TV interview that he had been ordered by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri not to use Syria to launch attacks on the West.

“There is nothing called Khorasan Group. The Americans came up with it to deceive the public,” he insisted.

Islamic State Declares Foothold in Russia’s North Caucasus

The Islamic State terrorist group announced the creation of a new “governorate” Tuesday that it says will span several regions of Russia’s North Caucasus, a U.S. think tank said in a report.

The report by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War cited Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a spokesman for the fundamentalist group, as naming Abu Mohammad al-Qadari the leader of the newly created entity and congratulating “the soldiers of the Islamic State” in the Caucasus.

The announcement came two days after an audio statement was circulated on Twitter in which Islamic State supporters from the Russian regions of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia — which all have large Muslim populations — pledged allegiance to the group.

These areas are also claimed by the al-Qaida-affiliated Caucasus Emirate group, which was first declared in 2007 and whose aim is to establish a state there based on sharia law. In recent months several militant commanders from the Caucasus Emirate have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State.

The Caucasus Emirate has claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks in Russian cities, including the 2011 bombing of Domodedovo Airport that killed 37 people.

Up to 2,000 Russians are fighting for the Islamic State abroad, Yevgeny Lukyanov, deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, told Interfax on Wednesday.

“The [future] return to Russia of militants who are nationals of our country will also be a problem,” he said. “And they are already returning.”

The Grozny warlord reminding Moscow who is boss

A Chechen special forces officer rides atop an infantry fighting vehicle with a flag portraying Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov during Victory Day parade in central Grozny, on May 9, 2013. Fighter jets screamed over Red Square and heavy tanks rumbled over its cobblestones as Russia flexed today its military muscle on the anniversary of its costly victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Smaller Victory Day celebrations were held on the central squares of cities across Russia as well as at Moscow's Black Sea port of Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. AFP PHOTO / ELENA FITKULINA (Photo credit should read ELENA FITKULINA/AFP/Getty Images)

Men with guns are everywhere in Grozny. They stand on street corners, hang out in hotel lobbies and swagger through shopping malls, Uzis hanging from the waist.

They are Kadyrovtsy, the fighters who became policemen after Ramzan Kadyrov, their militia leader, became head of the Chechen Republic under a deal with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

The Kadyrovtsys’ distinctive tight black uniform with a Chechen flag patch on the right arm and a Russian one on the left reflect how many Russians regard today’s Chechnya: a rival power base to parts of the Russian security state.

Tensions between Moscow and Grozny came to the fore after the murder in February of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician, for which three former Chechen security officials were arrested.

This week, after security forces from the neighbouring Stavropol region shot dead a Chechen man in Grozny, Mr Kadyrov felt compelled to remind Moscow who was boss in Chechnya.

Mr Kadyrov instructed his security officials: “If someone appears on our territory without your knowledge — no matter if a Muscovite or someone from Stavropol — I order you to shoot to kill.”

The Chechen government insists the Stavropol officials had come as paid assassins and lacked documents for a legal operation. But Mr Kadyrov’s aggressive response raises a bigger political question: his regime may have stabilised war-torn Chechnya, but could it now weaken the Russian state as a whole?

“Kadyrov has tried to build a state within the state for a long time,” says Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a Caucasus expert at International Crisis Group. “He only listens to Putin, and nobody else.”

While other republics in the North Caucasus exchange intelligence on the Islamist insurgency with which the restive region struggles, the Chechen arm of Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, refuses to do so.

“It shares what it feels like sharing with Moscow, and lets the centre decide what it sends back down south,” says Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services at New York University and author of a book on the Chechen wars.

Chechnya’s warlord rulers have clashed over their claim to special status with other parts of the security apparatus before. So far, they have had their way.

In 2013, Mr Putin replaced his top investigator in Chechnya after only seven months on the job following a run-in with Chechen officials.

Sergei Bobrov, a highly decorated general at the Federal Investigative Committee, had pressed on with an investigation into the murder of three women in the Chechen village of Geldagan even after his staff received threatening phone calls telling them to stop.

Two people from Geldagan said their village belonged to the area of influence of Magomed Daudov, a former fighter under Mr Kadyrov’s father and now the republic’s prime minister. “No investigator can build a case without asking him what to do,” said one of the two.

The same year Mr Bobrov was forced out, the Federal Investigative Committee released several Chechen men with links to Mr Kadyrov whom the FSB had detained on charges of extorting, kidnapping and torturing other Chechens in Moscow.

In Chechnya, some believe that Mr Kadyrov ordered Mr Nemtsov’s murder just steps from the Kremlin walls because he thought this would be a service to his political overlord.

“That man is getting really worried what will happen to him if Putin is no longer there,” said a government critic in Grozny who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “With the criticism from the west, the economic crisis and rumours about disagreements in Putin’s circle, he realised that Putin will not be there for ever. Once Putin is gone, he loses everything.”

Others see the Nemtsov murder as a result of infighting. In Grozny, speculation is rife whether Mr Daudov or Adam Delimkhanov, a Duma member and brother of the commander of interior ministry troops in Chechnya, have ambitions to replace Mr Kadyrov.

True or not, these theories point to the precarious nature and the built-in risks of Mr Putin’s solution for Chechnya. But the Russian president does not appear to share such concerns.

He considers Chechnya a model that can be applied elsewhere. Last November, he suggested to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, that Ukraine pacify its eastern Donbass region by buying it off with money and autonomy as he had done in Chechnya.

Chechen special forces fficers ride atop an armoured personnel carrier during Victory Day parade in central Grozny, on May 9, 2013. Fighter jets screamed over Red Square and heavy tanks rumbled over its cobblestones as Russia flexed today its military muscle on the anniversary of its costly victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Smaller Victory Day celebrations were held on the central squares of cities across Russia as well as at Moscow's Black Sea port of Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
The Kadyrovtsy who enforce the will of the Chechen leader

That is more than an abstract idea. Moscow is bringing other parts of the North Caucasus in line with some of Chechnya’s draconian practices. In 2013, Mr Putin replaced the head of Dagestan, who had tried to counter the creeping Islamist insurgency through dialogue with Salafi Muslims.

Since then, Dagestan has cracked down on Salafism as Chechnya has. Dagestan authorities have also started using Mr Kadyrov’s practice of punishing insurgents’ families by destroying their houses and expelling them.

Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin adviser on Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ukraine for Mr Putin, this year negotiated treaties for a far-reaching integration of the two Georgian breakaway regions with Russia in exchange for more economic aid.

As far as Mr Kadyrov is concerned, the deal is very clear. “If you entrusted this region to me, I must ensure security [here]. If not, please be so good and fire me.”

Ramzan Kadyrov: Chechen warlord accused of brutal rule

People walk past burnt out kiosks at a street market close to a destroyed building housing the housing the local media known as the Press House, in central Grozny, on December 4, 2014. Heavily-armed gunmen attacked a police post killing several officers before storming a building housing the local media and a school in the capital. AFP PHOTO/ELENA FITKULINA

When Chechnya’s ruler Ramzan Kadyrov ordered his security forces last week to open fire on any Russian policeman who appeared on his territory without prior approval, he openly stated a rule that many of his subjects have suffered under for several years: inside the North Caucasus republic, he, and he alone, is master.

Even though war officially ended six years ago, the Chechen republic continues to be one of the most violent places in Russia.

Gleaming Grozny City Rising From Ruins...GROZNY - JANUARY 20: General view of downtown in Grozny the Russian region of Chechnya on January 20, 2015. The new Grozny City development is the centerpiece of a transformation that has changed the capital of Chechnya from the charred wreckage that was left after the wars of the 1990s and remained until only a few years ago. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Six years after the war, the capital city may have been rebuilt but the Chechen republic remains one of the most violent places in Russia

Local residents and human rights advocates accuse the former warlord of imposing a brutal rule. There are frequent disappearances and killings and no avenues for redress.

“This is a kind of island which lies outside of the reach of Russian law. It will be done as Kadyrov or those close to him say,” says a Chechen human rights activist who asked to remain anonymous because his group has been the target of attacks.

He added that Russian president Vladimir Putin had “given our republic as a fiefdom to Ramzan. He is now the only lord and father. He submits to nobody but Putin, and Putin doesn’t want chaos here.”


The conflict in Chechnya began when the republic tried to secede from Russia after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. Over the course of two brutal wars which ended with the suppression of this secessionist cause, the insurgency has morphed into a jihadi uprising and spread all over the North Caucasus.
Since a group of Islamist insurgents launched an armed attack in downtown Grozny last December, the regime is cracking down even harder. In the Naursky district north of Grozny, seven young men were abducted in December.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov prays as he visits a recently rebuilt district in the Chechnya's capital Grozny, on May 1, 2012. Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, a 35-year-old former Chechen rebel, took power in 2004 and has described Islamic law as superior "to the laws of the Russian federation." AFP PHOTOSTR/AFP/GettyImages

  • Born October 1976, his father was Akhmad Kadyrov, who as chief mufti declared jihad against Russia during first Chechen war.
  • In the first Chechen war of 1994-96, Mr Kadyrov fought against Russia together with his father.
  • At the beginning of the second Chechen war in 1999 he and his father sided with Moscow. After restoration of federal government in 2000, Mr Kadyrov became chief bodyguard for his father, who became head of the Chechen republic.
  • After his father’s assassination in 2004, Mr Kadyrov became deputy prime minister and in 2006 prime minister.
  • In February 2007, Russian president Vladimir Putin installed Mr Kadyrov as head of the Chechen Republic, replacing Alu Alkhanov.

Family members of two of them say they know who took them and which police station they were taken to, but their lawyer was told that they had been taken elsewhere.

Several more disappeared from Groznensky, a rural district surrounding the regional capital. They have yet to be found.

Other small groups of young men have been abducted from areas all over the country.

Separately, security forces rounded up the relatives of those involved in the December 4 attack, burnt down their houses and expelled them from the country.

In February, three people were killed in an explosion in an industrial area of Grozny. According to two local human rights activists, the authorities said the three were suicide bombers, arrested their relatives, held them for two days and on the third day expelled them from the republic.

The police have also gone after anyone whose contact was found on the phones of the alleged suicide bombers. Five are still unaccounted for, and two died while under arrest.

They were buried in secret and their families have been forbidden from talking about their deaths. But according to local human rights workers, the two died from torture during questioning.

“Kadyrov has total carte blanche to do inside the republic whatever he wants. Everything is allowed,” says Sergei Babinets, a member of a joint mobile group of Russian human rights organisations which rotates activists through Chechnya.

“If he wants to burn houses, he burns houses. If he wants to conduct mass cleansings, he conducts mass cleansings. If he wants to kill someone, he kills someone.”

Those who speak up almost always pay a high price. After the Joint Mobile Group criticised violence against the families of suspected insurgents, their office in Grozny was torched.

A month later, masked men stormed the office of Memorial, another rights group in the Chechen town of Gudermes and intimidated staff there.

The climate of fear further undermines the constitutional and legal institutions of the Russian state in Chechnya.

“There is a huge number of torture cases where people know who took the victim away and where the victim is being held. But the investigator in charge of the case does not call the perpetrators for questioning, does not detain them, and does not pass the case on to the prosecution. Judges never call these perpetrators as witnesses,” says Mr Babinets.

“They have told us directly: if I call this [policeman] for questioning today, they’ll come for me tomorrow. The judges, prosecutors, investigators are just afraid.”

According to Mr Babinets, not a single case of torture or abduction on which his group filed a complaint has been taken up by a Chechen court since the group started work in 2009.

The dysfunctionality of the legal system has encouraged many Chechens to seek help abroad. There is a rising tide of complaints about torture and disappearances to the European Court of Human Rights.

While the court often struggles to find enough evidence of torture, it has awarded damages to Chechens whose family members disappeared in the hands of the security apparatus.

In this context, Moscow tidies up after Mr Kadyrov.

Mr Babinets says the fines included in the Strasbourg court’s rulings against the Grozny authorities are always paid — by the federal government in Moscow.

“But the remaining parts of the verdicts, which often call for a proper investigation, are never implemented,” he adds.

Increasingly Chechens consider emigration. The republic records a net outflow of its people, according to official migration statistics, which are believed to under-report outward migration. Those who fear the Chechen authorities try to leave Russia altogether because they do not feel safe in Moscow either.

There are no reliable statistics on how many have left, but a Chechen refugee wave that hit Germany in 2013 is seen by most experts as a good indicator.

Berlin received more than 15,000 applications for political asylum from Russia that year, more than four times the total a year earlier. According to German officials, more than 90 per cent were from Chechnya.

“Of course we want to live where our ancestors lived, and die where our ancestors died,” says one man from the Chechen village of Alkhazurovo who applied for foreign passports for his entire family last year. “But there is a point where it is better to leave.”

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