The Kremlin and Chechnya: A Cruel Irony

Of all the historical ironies, the one surrounding the Kremlin’s relationship with Chechnya must surely be one of the cruelest. 

When Chechens fell victim to Moscow’s heavy-handed campaign of force to reestablish control over the restive region, it was Russian democrats who protested the loudest against large-scale human rights abuses that accompanied the “counterterrorist operation.” Yegor Gaidar and Grigory Yavlinsky, the leaders of the rival liberal parties in Russia’s parliament, who agreed on little else, stood side by side in their opposition to the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s. In January 1996, Boris Nemtsov, the newly reelected governor of Nizhny Novgorod, collected 1 million signatures (in a region of 3 million) under a petition against the war in Chechnya and brought them to President Yeltsin’s desk in the Kremlin. “Are these signatures for or against me?” an irritated Yeltsin asked Nemtsov. “That depends on what you do, Mr. President,” the governor replied audaciously. “If you continue the war, they are against you. If you end it, they are for you.

Boris Yeltsin chose to end the war. But three years later, his designated successor, Vladimir Putin, who needed to cultivate a strongman image, revived Chechnya as a convenient “counterterrorist” target in his campaign for the Kremlin. As Putin rose in the polls against the backdrop of carpet bombings in Chechnya, it was, once again, Russian democrats who stood in opposition to the war. Yavlinsky was denounced as a “traitor” for criticizing Putin’s military campaign. Nemtsov was angrily told to resign his parliamentary seat after he called for peace talks between the Kremlin and Chechen leaders.

On February 27, 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was killed by four bullets in the back as he waked home over the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, two hundred yards from the Kremlin wall. A week later, five suspected perpetrators were arrested and charged with his murder. All of them were from Chechnya. As was the presumed organizer, Ruslan Geremeyev (whom Russian Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin did not allow to be named in the official indictment.) Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who once called for imprisoning Nemtsov, praised his suspected killer, Chechen police officer Zaur Dadayev, as “a true patriot of Russia.” In spite of this—and in spite of repeated requests by lawyers representing Nemtsov’s children—Kadyrov was not even formally questioned by investigators. Instead, Putin awarded him with a medal and publicly thanked him for his “effective work.”

In recent weeks, Kadyrov and his henchmen have emerged as the lead attack dogs against Russia’s democratic opposition. The Chechen leader described Kremlin opponents as “enemies of the people” and “traitors” who should be prosecuted for their  “subversive activities.” A mass official rally was organized in the center of Grozny, with participants displaying preprinted placards denouncing “the fifth column.” Kadyrov’s parliament speaker, Magomed Daudov, railed against “paid puppets like [Alexei] Navalny and [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky” whom he accused of “plain treason against the interests of the state.” On his Instagram page, Daudov posted a photo of Kadyrov holding—quite literally—an aggressive attack dog, whose “teeth are really itching.” “We can hardly restrain him,” Daudov wrote.

Kadyrov himself—also an avid Instagram user—went further. On February 1, he posted a video (later removed by Instagram for violating its rules) showing former Russian prime minister and opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov and the author of this blog in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. “Those who have not understood, will understand,” read the accompanying comment.

Ramzan Kadyrov likes to talk about “traitors.” It is he, however, who is really betraying his people and their historical memory by positioning Chechnya in the avant-garde of the Kremlin’s attack against those who strive for a democratic Russia.

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