Chechnya's Kremlin-installed President Ramzan Kadyrov is under fire after Russia's troop mobilization. Photo: AFP / Maksim Blinov / Sputnik

During a gathering of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow last week, attendees were told to stop their countrymen from “disgracing the Chechen people.”

“Each one of us should carry the responsibility for our countrymen living in foreign lands… I  implore you, don’t let them embarrass the honor of our nation!” said Adam Delimkhanov, a Russian MP known as “the right hand” of Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

The statements were interpreted as an encouragement to vigilantism against Chechens living abroad who deviate from “The Path of Akhmat Kadyrov.” That is essentially a Ramzan Kadyrov blend of Chechen traditions, Islamic principles and the personality cult centered around himself and his late father, Akhmat.

Pundits say Kadyrov is extending his control over migrant Chechen and his influence far beyond the republic’s border, from Europe to the Middle East.

Kadyrov’s fiefdom

The Russian Republic of Chechnya suffered two bloody wars that pitted Russian Federal Forces against a local insurgency in the 1990s and early 2000s, leaving much of the territory in ruins.

In 2007, Kadyrov pledged loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin and was appointed head of Chechnya in 2007, after the assassination of his father Akhmat, a former separatist leader who had swapped sides in the Second Chechen War, helping Moscow crush the insurgency.

More of an Eastern monarch than a Russian governor, the bearded, beefy Kadyrov chills with Hollywood celebrities, dons traditional threads and does folk dances. He has also been filmed dressed as an armored warlord, and displays his fondness for wild animals and firearms on social media.

Chechnya’s leader shows off some slick moves. Source: YouTube

Despite Kadyrov’s substantial achievements in bringing peace and rebuilding Chechnya, emigration to Europe has continued in the last decade due to corruption, lack of social mobility and human right abuses.

With the Kremlin’s carte blanche to annihilate Islamic rebels, Kadyrov resorted to torture, extrajudicial killings and collective punishment against insurgents’ families. Despite the sharp decline in terrorism  in the last decade, those tactics remain in use. Kadyrov’s repression has allegedly shifted focus, targeting alleged followers of Salafism, a form of Islam prohibited in Chechnya, drug users and homosexuals.

Elena Milashina, the Novaya Gazeta journalist who broke the story on persecution of LGBTs in Chechnya, calls Kadyrov’s rule “totalitarian.” “Kadyrov seeks to control all aspects of Chechens’ life – from the way they pray to the way they dress,” she told Asia Times.

Novaya Gazeta is Russia’s most prominent opposition investigative newspaper. It has history with Grozny: Journalist and Kadyrov critic Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in her Moscow apartment in 2006.

“Kadyrov does not consider himself just as the head of a region of the Russian Federation,” added Tanya Lokshina, Europe and Central Asia director of Human Right Watch. “He sees himself as the ‘father’ of the Chechen nation.”

This explains his urge to extend his control over all Chechens. 

Kadyrov arrives for dinner in idiosyncratic attire. Source: YouTube

Overseas opposition

Europe’s Chechen diaspora of around 200,000 persons, mainly in France, Belgium, Germany and Austria, largely consists of war refugees. Kadyrov uses both stick and carrot to control them, according to Pavel Luzin, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of History and Political Science at Perm University.

On the one hand, he funds the construction of Chechen cultural and religious centers, while a network of supporters speaks for him, For instance, MMA fighter Timur Dugazaev regularly organizes pro-Kadyrov rallies in Berlin and meets Kadyrov’s associates when they visit Europe.

On the other hand, Kadyrov uses informants to intimidate those who criticize him and oversees social media.

“When you are expelled from Europe and you have nowhere to go, then we will question you for every word that you said,” Kadyrov warned in a television address in 2016. “I know all the [Chechen] youth websites in Europe. We write down every word from every [social media post]…therefore, don’t harm yourself.”

Kadyrov’s legitimacy is questioned by migrants who support Chechnya’s independence from Russia and consider Kadyrov’s regime collaborationist.

“The so-called ‘Akhmat Kadyrov’s Path’ doesn’t have anything to do with Chechen traditions,” a Chechen activist based in Germany,  who supports Chechen secessionism, told Asia Times.  “On the contrary, it violates those traditions, since it means submission to an external rule imposed by force.”

According to the activist, Kadyrov wants to prevent overseas Chechens uniting, gaining international support and undermining his rule. “As long as there are Chechens fighting for the freedom and independence of the Chechen Republic…Kadyrov and his followers will always stay traitors of the Chechen people,” he said.

The activist requested anonymity. That is wise, considering the number of Kadyrov opponents who have met violent ends abroad.

Sulim Yamadayev — a former Chechen battalion commander who engaged in a power struggle with Kadyrov —  was ambushed and killed in a Dubai hotel parking lot in 2009.  Yamadayev had fled Russia after the killing of his brother Ruslan in Moscow months earlier. The Dubai police blame Kadyrov’s associate Adam Delimkhanov for ordering the assassination.

The same year, Umar Israilov – a former separatist fighter who had formerly served as Kadyrov’s personal bodyguard – was gunned down in Vienna. After fleeing Chechnya, Israilov had filed complaints to the European Court for Human Rights, accusing Kadyrov of torturing him, and of other abuses.

A similar fate awaited Zelimkhan Kangoshvili, another former Chechen insurgent who was murdered last summer in Berlin by a man suspected of ties with Russian military intelligence.

Kadyrov has denied any involvement in all the above killings.

Putin’s Chechen warriors

Meanwhile, at home, he maintains a personal combat force. His militia consists of some 5,000 armed men formally controlled by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs but de-facto loyal to Kadyrov himself. The unit’s equipment extends to large-caliber weapons, armed personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles.

In a 2014 speech to his men, Kadyrov pledged to be “Vladimir Putin’s combat infantry” – ready to accomplish tasks the Russian military could not fulfill in any corner of the globe. And Chechen fighters have deployed in conflicts is support of the Kremlin.

In Syria, Kadyrov’s spies allegedly infiltrated the ranks of Islamic State, preparing the ground for Russia’s intervention. And in Eastern Ukraine, Chechens loyal to Kadyrov have fought alongside pro-Russian separatists.

But the chasm dividing Chechens is deep. Facing Kadyrov’s men were pro-Kyiv Chechen battalions, largely made up of former separatists who considered the war in Eastern Ukraine a continuation of their struggle against Russian imperialism.

Kadyrov inspects his militia’s new tactical vehicles. Source: YouTube

Unofficial diplomacy, official backing 

Still, not all Kadyrov’s activities are deadly.

His ties with the Chechen diaspora in the Middle East – mainly concentrated in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq – are part of his broader political ambitions in the region. During numerous visits, he has met personally with the region’s leaders, establishing himself as the Kremlin’s unofficial envoy to the Arab World.

In Jordan, where ethnic Chechens occupy influential positions within the government and the army, Kadyrov has established close ties with the local monarchy. Leveraging his friendship with Saudi royals, Kadyrov has played a role in facilitating Russia-Saudi diplomatic relations.

All this increases the Kremlin dependence on the Chechen leader.

“All this strengthens Kadyrov’s position within Russia itself, giving him additional guarantees of political survival,” Luzin said.

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