MOSCOW -- Internet posts featuring photos of pets are usually well-meant. This one was not.
A close ally of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov fired a fresh salvo in a chilling confrontation with Russian liberals when he posted a menacing picture of the Kremlin-backed regional leader with a slavering dog named Tarzan straining on a leash.
Chechen parliament speaker Magomed Daudov, who had called the opponents of President Vladimir Putin “traitors” and a “fifth column” on January 16, said on Instagram on January 17 that the big dog’s “fangs are itching” to get at opposition figures he suggested were American stooges.
“This again is Tarzan...Our old friend,” Daudov wrote above a picture of Kadyrov restraining a lunging Caucasian Shepherd dog. “Tarzan just hates dogs of foreign stripes...Especially American ones.”
With its threatening and vulgar language, the post was seen by critics of Kadyrov as the latest evidence that he and his lieutenants are increasingly out of control and must be reined in by Putin, who has relied on the former separatist fighter for years to keep a lid on restive Chechnya. It came days after a lawmaker in Siberia was forced to apologize after calling Kadyrov a “disgrace” to Russia.
In the post, Daudov singled out prominent Russian liberal opposition politicians, activists, and journalists by giving them nicknames inspired by dog breeds. Those targeted included Igor Kalypin, head of the Committee to Prevent Torture; Aleksei Veneditkov, editor in chief of radio station Ekho Moskvy; human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov; and opposition activist Ilya Yashin.
Daudov wrote of “pekingese ‘Kalyapa,’ who defends the rights of those who tell on the Pitbull, dachshund ‘Venya’ with the barking throat and loud ‘Echo,’ the Moscow thoroughbred Ponomar…who lives in a trash can not far from the Russian State Duma, the pooch ‘Yashka’ who creates discomfort with his stench in the very center of the capital.”
“In general our friend doesn’t like these dogs, mainly because they remind him of wanton bitches,” he wrote.
Some people singled out by Daudov reacted with humor.
State Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov, the only liberal opposition politician in Russia’s parliament, hit back with a Twitter post featuring a photo of his far more friendly looking dog.
“To…Daudov. I've seen your Tarzan. This is my Tibetan mastiff, Elman. He's a pet, not a political argument," he wrote.
Yashin posted a photo of his cat.
Kremlin foes and rights activists have long voiced concern that Kadyrov has violated the Russian Constitution and ruled Chechnya though fear and abuse since Putin put him in place in 2007.
Tensions between Kadyrov and Russian liberals have escalated since the February 2015 slaying of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, which many critics of the Chechen strongman suspect he was behind. Kadyrov denies involvement, and efforts by relatives and associates of Nemtsov to have him questioned have been thwarted.
Critics say Kadyrov enjoys wide-ranging impunity in return for unwavering expressions of loyalty to Putin and iron rule in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet separatist wars and a continuing Islamist insurgency.
The latest hostilities began on January 12, when Kadyrov called members of the opposition “enemies of the people and traitors” and said they should be tried and sentenced. “Nothing is holy to them,” he said in comments carried by the Chechen government website.
The statement prompted Konstantin Senchenko, a local legislator in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, to call Kadyrov a “disgrace” to Russia in a blistering attack on Facebook. The next day, however, Senchenko issued a groveling apology to the Chechen leader -- and later said he had received oblique but clear warnings that he could suffer the same fate as Nemtsov.
Stepping up the rhetoric further, Adam Delimkhanov, a State Duma deputy and right-hand man of Kadyrov, condemned what he called the opposition "fifth column" for "rocking the political and social situation” at a bad time. Russia’s economy has been hit hard by low world oil prices and Western sanctions over its interference in Ukraine.
Daudov on January 16 then called for the closure of Internet TV station Dozhd and Ekho Moskvy, saying they constitute the “headquarters of the fifth column.”
It prompted Ekho Moskvy presenter Matvei Ganapolsky on January 17 to write an open letter to Putin asking him to intervene, saying staff at the radio station face an “open threat to their lives.”
“Do you want a Charlie Hebdo?” Ganapolsky asked, referring to the deadly attack on the French satirical magazine in January 2015. “Do you want this? Probably not. But maybe you do. And if you don’t -- then why aren’t you reacting?”
A Moscow-based group called the Congress of the Intelligentsia is petitioning for Kadyrov to be sacked, while St. Petersburg city councilor Maksim Reznik on January 18 formally appealed to prosecutors to check Kadyrov’s statements for “extremism.”
Russian media outlet RBC quoted Nikolai Svanidze, a member of the Kremlin's human rights council, as saying he believes the spate of provocative statements from Chechnya are Kadyrov's "own personal initiative."
He said that Kadyrov probably feels emboldened because the investigation into Nemtsov’s killing has not shown considerable progress or gone deeper than the five low-level Chechens who have been charged.
But other Russians suspect that many of Kadyrov’s actions and words are coordinated with the Kremlin.