When I met human rights activist Oyub Titiev two years ago in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, I was investigating the propaganda tools used by the strongman leader of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, to promote his regime and to cover up widespread rights violations in the region.
Titiev declined to be interviewed on the topic, saying information published by journalists had previously put members of his organization, Memorial, one of the few human right groups active in Chechnya, at risk.
To justify his reticence, Titiev drew my attention to a picture of a woman on his office wall. It showed his former colleague Natalya Estemirova. She was kidnapped and murdered in 2009 while investigating a sensitive case of human rights abuse. Her killers were never found.
Now, even Titiev’s prudence has proved ineffectual.
Human rights? Not here
One year later, he was arrested for allegedly possessing 200 grams of marijuana. Titiev and his defenders claim the drug was planted on him by Chechen police and the case entirely fabricated to silence him. That defense fell on deaf ears. Earlier this week, a Chechen court sentenced the 61-year-old activist to four years in jail.
A number of international organizations and Western governments have expressed their support for Titiev and demanded his release. Amnesty International defined the sentence against the activist as “an affront to human rights, reason and justice”.
Activists say fabricated criminal cases involving narcotics have become a common method used by Chechen authorities to silence opposing voices. In fact, Titiev’s case strongly resembles those of activist leader Ruslan Kutaev and independent journalist Zhalaudi Gergiev. Both were arrested and faced similar dubious charges of drug possession.
Kadyrov himself does not seem too interested in maintaining fictions.
Right after Titiev’s arrest, Kadyrov said in a public statement that “there is no place in Chechnya for human right activists,” and even coined a Stalin-era epithet to describe them as “enemies of the people.” He further stated that, once Titiev’s trial is over, activists will be banned from entering the republic, comparing them to extremists and terrorists.
Although it is unclear whether his claim will be enforced, Memorial has felt the need to fully halt its activities in Chechnya to ensure the safety of its staff.
Rachel Denber, deputy director at the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said the jailing of Titiev marked a turning point in Ramzan Kadyrov’s long efforts to squeeze rights activists out of Chechnya.
“Memorial was the only organization left on the ground taking care of very sensitive cases of human right abuses in Chechnya. The suspension of its activities is a major blow to our activities”, Denber told Asia Times.
Despite his youth – Kadyrov is 42 – he has been leading the small republic of Chechnya for over a decade, after two hideously bloody and destructive wars that pitted separatists against Russian federal forces between 1994 and 2009.
Kadyrov’s father, Akhmat, was a rebel leader who switched sides in the Second Chechen War and helped Moscow retake the breakaway republic, before becoming the first president.
After Akhmat’s death in a bomb attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed the youthful but tough Ramzan as head of the republic. In exchange for Kadyrov’s absolute loyalty, Putin gave him carte blanche in Chechnya’s internal affairs, allowing him to turn the republic into a personal fiefdom.
Perhaps taking a leaf out of Putin’s playbook, Kadyrov makes for an entertaining and high-profile figure. On social media, the bearded, beefy leader performs Chechen dances, feasts on barbeques, hosts Hollywood stars, interacts with commandos and indulges his fetish for weapons – from traditional swords to high-tech small arms.
Since its formal reintegration into the Russian Federation in 2001, Chechnya has received generous subsidies from Moscow: over 460 billion rubles (around $7 billion) were allocated to its reconstruction up to 2014. And even today, the region is among the five most subsidized in the Russian Federation.
Leveraging this generous inflow of cash, Kadyrov has rebuilt Chechnya virtually from scratch. And it is difficult not to be impressed by the republic’s capital. Reduced to a Stalingrad-style pile of rubble in savage fighting in the 1990s, today’s Grozny resembles Dubai, with glittering Grozny City skyscrapers towering over a majestic mosque “The Heart of Chechnya.”
But the prosperous Chechnya promoted with publicity stunts and social media outreach by the seemingly jovial Kadyrov is also a Potemkin Village hiding some grim realities.
‘Russia in miniature’
The strongman has established an authoritarian, feudal-style hierarchy, with little regard for the rule of law and a handful of powerful clans close to him retaining control over the republic’s resources.
“Chechnya is like a Russia in miniature,” Chechen writer German Sadulaev told this writer. “And given its small size, all Russia’s flaws, its oligarchies and corruption, are way more concentrated.”
While counter-insurgency operations in Chechnya formally ended in 2009, occasional terror attacks continue in the region.
Kadyrov’s security forces – the so-called “Kadyrovtsy” – have been carrying out extrajudicial killings, kidnapping and torture to crush the republic’s remaining rebel groups. According to observers, these brutal methods have further radicalized the insurgents, who have gradually abandoned the cause of Chechen independence to join global jihadi movements.
And Kadyrov has been encouraging collective punishment against the families of terrorists. For instance, after an attack in central Grozny led to the killing of several policemen in 2014, Kadyrov said that the terrorists’ houses should be razed to the ground and their families exiled from Chechnya. The following day several houses in central Grozny were set ablaze.
Oppression is now rising in the social sphere. According to activists, security officials in Grozny have shifted from anti-insurgency to not just silencing critics of the regime, but punishing people who fail to conform.
Chechnya made worldwide headlines two years ago when reports came out about massive anti-LGBT purges leading to the rounding up, imprisonment and execution of several gay men.
“If you don’t publicly conform to Ramzan Kadyrov’s notion of ‘Chechen traditions,’ you do it at your own peril,” Denber pointed out.
Following Titiev’s arrest, Nikolai Svanidze, a member of the Russian Presidential Council for Human Rights, admitted that there is little his organization can do to safeguard human rights in Chechnya. “Our jurisdiction, de facto, does not reach the Chechen Republic,” he told the press.
Only Putin himself seems to have the authority to reign in Kadyrov, but the president has been mostly turning a blind eye to the strongman’s behavior.
Moscow needs a stable Chechnya as a reliable stronghold on Russia’s southern borders, and according to many analysts, any attempt to replace Kadyrov could result in the powder-keg region plunging back into chaos.