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The king of Chechnya

Russian journalist Alex Tor specializes in Chechnya and Ingushetia in the North Caucasus, which have a history of war and violence. He has, among other things, written about corruption, refugees, and kidnappings. Because of his journalistic work, Tor and his family have been forced into exile. He is currently an ICORN guest writer in Denmark, with an adopted name and a protected identity. Alex Tor is his pseudonym.

Credits Text: Alex Tor Translation from Russian: Ian Probstein, Yuri Probstein December 19 2013

To understand what is going on in Chechnya, one needs to say a few words about the Northern Caucasus and its history. The Northern Caucasus is the most multinational region of Russia. More than 110 nationalities live here. Being one of the “youngest” regions, it was formed as a part of Russia only after the end of the Caucasian War of 1817–1864. It is also one of the most densely populated regions of Russia: more than 11 percent of Russia’s population lives on the land which occupies a little more than 2 percent of the country territory. Since 1994, the Northern Caucasus is a war zone, when the first Chechen war crossed the border of the republic, turning the territories of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria into the hotbeds of armed resistance to the federal government.

After the downfall of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin granted the regions maximal rights. All the subjects of Russia were given the opportunity to elect regional heads, deputies of the Parliament and so on. Although many regions proclaimed their sovereignty, the idea of independence was realized only in Chechnya. Immediately after the downfall of the USSR, General Dhokhar Dudaev, a former general of the Soviet army, became the leader of the independence movement, which proclaimed building the independent state of Ichkeria. After that, the threat of the Russian Federation’s disintegration in a fashion similar to the collapse of the USSR became quite real, since other republics which dreamed of being liberated from the dictatorship of the federal center could have been inspired by the example of Chechnya.

Having decided to demonstrate to other regions that it will not tolerate secession of any region from the Russian Federation, Moscow has chosen Chechnya as an example, counting on the use of military force. However, in doing so, it has also revived old fears of the peoples of the Caucasus, who even perceive the Great Caucasian War as the greatest act of injustice towards them, as a result of which the peoples of the Northern Caucasus lost their lands, identities, and the opportunity to choose their own way of life. No matter how naïve the claims of the present highlanders to Moscow, one should realize that their history essentially consists of endless pages of violence, which is perceived as the “Russian way” of annexing Caucasian lands. It is a waste of time to explain to them that Russia brought “civilization”. Any Caucasian will reply that nobody asked Russia to do so, and that the laws of the ancestors were sufficient for a calm and peaceful life.

After two military conflicts, it seems the Kremlin has found the solution to the Chechen problem. The so-called “Chechenization” of the conflict is in essence the creation of Chechen authorities who will have the opportunity to form their own military units, consisting of Chechens loyal to the Russian government and ready to fight against their own compatriots. Legally, all these Chechen military units trained by Russian military personnel and equipped with modern weapons and machinery are subordinated to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Defense of Russia, but in reality they are controlled by the leader of Chechnya and fulfill his orders. In 2000 Putin appointed Akhmat–Hadji Kadyrov, a former mufti of Checnya (who in 1995 declared Jihad to Russia, but after the conflict with Islamic radicals became opposed to the leadership of the Independent Republic of Ichkeria). In 2003, Russian leadership organized “elections” in Checnya that were, of course, won by Akhmat–Hadji Kadyrov; 80 percent of the population “voted” for him. However, he did not rule long: on May 9, 2004, he was assassinated in a terrorist attack.

Following the chronicle of the assassination of the President of Chechnya Akhmat–Hadji Kadyrov covered with blood, the residents of Russia saw the meeting of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin with Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of the murdered president, who was brought to Kremlin wearing a sweat suit. From that moment on militia captain Ramzan Kadyrov, the former head of his father’s security, had a headlong career boost. On the day following his father’s assassination, he was appointed the first vice-premier of the Republic of Chechnya. The government of Chechnya immediately asked the President of Russia to change the legislation of the republic so that Kadyrov, 28 years old at that time, could register as a presidential candidate. According to the republic’s consitution, the minimum age for becoming president is 30. However, Putin decided not to amend the constitution. Weak-willed Alu Alikhanov became the president and a year later appointed Kadyrov prime-minister. In 2007 Alikhanov resigned and Kadyrov, who during three 3 years could put all the levers of political power under his control, naturally won the elections. This victory only gave him the formal official title of the head of the republic.

Immediately after his inauguration as the president, he started establishing an absolute dictatorship. Proclaiming daily his love to Russia and President Putin in mass media, he set up his own Kadyrov’s order in Chechnya that has nothing to do with Russian legislature. As a typical despot he killed or exiled everyone who could potentially become his rival. Thus were killed the brothers Yamadaev: Sulim, who was a member of the Russian parliament (assassinated by a killer in the center of Moscow), and Isa, a Hero of Russia, the commander of the elite Russian battalion Vostok (assassinated in Dubai by a killer), and Movladi Baisarov, the commander of the special task force Highlander, who was murdered in Moscow by a killer.

Ramzan Kadyrov did not stop there. The Kremlin set a main task before him—to annihilate the Islamic underground. Kadyrov took the task seriously. Human rights activists accuse him in such crimes as burning down the houses of militants, taking their relatives as hostages, and even the abduction, by “death squadrons,” of people who were merely suspected of sympathizing with militants. Kadyrov did not win his cruel and merciless war against the underground, but it was seriously weakened. However, the war spread to regions neighboring with Chechnya, such as Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and now the Kremlin was seriously considering using the Kadyrov’s methods in those regions as well. Thus on November 3 Putin signed a law that stipulates such measures as compensation of the damage inflicted by a terrorist attack, which includes moral damage “by a person who committed it, as well as at the expense of his close relatives, and family members, as well as other people whose health and well-being are dear to that person due to personal relationships.” In other words, the law now allows exactly the sort of things which Kadyrov recently did in Chechnya, introducing methods of collective responsibility that were not used by Russian authorities since the times of Stalin. It is not quite clear to me how these medieval methods will be justified before the world.

At the same time, Chechnya’s own mass media was being created with the task to devise an image of a peaceful flourishing republic and its great and wise leader. Even a monument to perished journalists has been erected, which fills with disgust at the head of Chehnya’s cynicism those who know first-hand what is going on in Chechnya. In today’s world there is probably only one other city that can compete with Grozny in the number of the country’s and republic leaders’ portraits in the streets—Pyongyang. There is no freedom of speech in Chechnya, because there is not a single journalist left who dares to write the truth. It came to the point that during the meetings with Chechen journalists, Kadyrov himself tells them to ask burning questions, but the scribblers only thank him for the happy life. The most daring would ask why a litter can in downtown is broken. In response, Kadyrov instantly orders to fire the bureaucrat responsible for the supervision of litter cans, while the journalist is asked to check the following morning whether the situation has been improved, and to write an updated report about it. However, the fear did not grow by chance.

Kadyrov is considered responsible for murders of such people as journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Natasha Estemirova. He himself calls them the enemies of the state, but denies his involvement in their assassinations. However, he organized a gala concert on the day of Estemirova’s funeral. His threats to those who dare write or utter the truth are legendary in Chechnya. One of his former bodyguards, Umar Israilov, who escaped and attempted to tell journalists the truth about him, was assassinated in Vienna in 2009. The killers were arrested and sentenced, but Austrian police had many questions for Kadyrov. He replied disdainfully that he would not talk with Austrian authorities. Ostensibly, he did not have common themes to discuss with them.

He really has nothing to discuss with the Austrian police, while those foreigners who nevertheless express interest in Kadyrov and Chechnya themselves visit him. Аnd they do come, beginning with Gerard Depardieu, whom Kadyrov presented with apartments and titles, to Hillary Swank and to Stephen Segal. They sing and dance before him at his birthday parties, while he is busy sending text messages using his IPhone, only occasionally looking around and smiling at an actor or a singer delivering a speech in his honor. European politicians and human rights activists do not welcome such visits when Kadyrov’s birthday surprisingly coincides with the celebration of the day of the city of Grozny. Remarkably, the dates only changed after Kadyrov became the head of the state of Chechnya, and officially, all those celebrations are in honor of the day of the city, not Kadyrov’s birthday.

Thus, for instance, what Peter Frank, the expert of the German office of Amnesty International, said when he knew that German actors took part in one of those concerts: “Participation in such concerts leads to the strengthening of an unjust system.” Tom Koenigs, the Chairman of Bundestag Human Rights and Humanitarian Help Committee, expressed it in even harsher: “They are crazy.”

However, all those critical evaluations of the regime in Chechnya do not prevent the European authorities from returning tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Chechnya back to Kadyrov. Kadyrov has practically created a miniature North Korea, but unlike Kim Jong-il, it did not come to his mind yet to surround it with a razor-wired fence and towers equipped with machine guns.

Nevertheless, the system created by Kadyrov will work for a long time in spite of all flaws and contradictions; it will work while Kadyrov has resources to maintain the atmosphere of overwhelming fear in Chechen society. Without fear it will blow up like a bubble.

The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) is an association of cities around the world dedicated to the value of Freedom of Expression. Writers have consistently been targets of politically motivated threats and persecution, and the network believes it is necessary for the international community to formulate and implement an appropriate response. Each ICORN city focuses on one writer at a time, each writer representing the countless others in hiding, in prison or silenced forever.

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