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Don’t Cry For Me, Chechnya: Colorful Campaign Begs Kadyrov To Stay

  • Mike Eckel

Chechen woman holds a picture of Ramzan Kadyrov during a rally in central Grozny earlier this year.

Chechen woman holds a picture of Ramzan Kadyrov during a rally in central Grozny earlier this year.

There are the videos of crying and singing children, the photographs of public employees holding placards, and a human rights ombudsman’s argument that allowing him to resign as Chechnya’s leader would violate the rights of the long-troubled Caucasus region's residents.

Such is the strange state of politics in Chechnya, where Ramzan Kadyrov’s oversized presence as the Caucasus republic's leader may or may not be coming to an end, amid cascading concerns about whether the Kremlin has given him too much free rein to rebuild the war-ravaged Russian region and quash the long-running insurgency that has plagued Moscow since the Soviet collapse.

The bearded, gruff-talking former rebel's term as leader formally ends next month. Given his singular dominance of the region's politics for the past nine years -- and the relative calm that has taken hold there -- most observers of the region expected him to be a shoo-in to stay on.

Last month, however, Kadyrov said in a radio interview that he had no desire to continue as leader. On February 27, he explained his reasoning further, saying “my time has passed.”

“For Kadyrov, this is the peak,” he told the Russian channel NTV.

In the days since, however, a public campaign calling on him to stay in power has taken off, with hints of endorsement or even involvement by government officials. That, in turn, has stoked speculation that Kadyrov’s resignation may be anything but.

The day after Kadyrov’s announcement, a group calling itself the Civic Forum of the Chechen Republic released a statement saying "society sees no alternative to [Kadyrov] and there can be no talk of successors." The statement was published on the official website of the Chechen administration.

A day later, the region’s top human rights official, Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, posted a similar announcement. The dark irony wasn't lost on human rights activists who have documented rampant rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, political assassinations, and collective punishment for relatives of insurgents, during Kadyrov’s tenure.

"The refusal of Kadyrov [to stay on as leader] would be a massive violation of the rights of [Chechen] citizens," Nukhazhiyev wrote.

And then there were the videos and photographs circulating on social networking and chat sites like Whatsapp and Instagram, featuring children singing Kadyrov's praises and, in one case, begging him to stay.

On Instagram -- which Kadyrov has used liberally both to promote himself and issue various edicts and announcements -- a Russian-language hashtag that translates as "Ramzan Don’t Go" had received more than 6,600 different posts as of March 1.

"The strength of Ramzan Kadyrov, Ramzan Kadyrov is cool. We in Chechnya are all patriots. Cheer for us," sang a boy in one Instagram video.​

TRANSLATION: A woman is heard asking "What don't you want?" The crying boy answers "I don't want him to go." The woman asks "Who is going?" The boy answers sobbing "Ramzan Akhmadovich." The woman replies "Well, tell him."

TRANSLATION: The children are chanting "Ramzan Don't Go!

TRANSLATION: The women are holding up a sign saying, "Ramzan Don't Go!

Kadyrov, 39, all but inherited the post following the assassination of his father, Akhmad, in 2004. He also inherited a Kremlin strategy that came to be known Chechenization, which turned Chechen paramilitaries into Moscow’s proxy fighters, taking the lead in battling the separatist rebels and Islamic radicals in the second Chechen war that began in 2000.

​Kadyrov's forces gained a reputation for brutality and have been accused of torturing people and abducting relatives of suspected insurgents, or even burning down houses.

But the Kremlin strategy also included showering Chechnya with money, to help rebuild the capital Grozny and the countryside, which in places resembled devastated battlefield and war zones.

Now the Grozny cityscape is adorned with glass-and-steel skyscrapers, street lamps, and manicured pedestrian walkways, and is home to the largest mosque in Europe -- a reconstruction that Kadyrov has largely claimed credit for.

But Kadyrov has also become a lightning rod in recent months. He has taunted Russia's beleaguered opposition activists, called some traitors, and issued thinly veiled threats against them.

Kadyrov has also called for defying, or even shooting, federal law enforcement forces should any of them enter Chechen territory without his knowledge.

The resignation interview came on the same day that tens of thousands of people marched through Moscow's streets to mark the anniversary of the killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. He was gunned down on a bridge just meters from the Kremlin walls, and one of those now under arrest is a top commander in a paramilitary unit close to Kadyrov.

In another Instagram post on February 28, Kadyrov appeared to leave the door open for staying on, noting that, under Russian election law, President Vladimir Putin must first select a slate of candidates from which voters can choose a local leader.

"With full responsibility, I must emphasize that I will fulfill any decision of the President of the Russian Federation, any order," he wrote.

"There isn’t a clear replacement for him. There is international pressure that points to him as an obvious bad guy, the links to the Nemtsov murders, that gets picked up, so maybe there’s an effort to distance the Putin regime from all that, and have him step down," said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"On the other hand, Kadyrov has been Putin’s guy in Chechnya," added Oliker, author of Russia's Chechen Wars 1994-2000: Lessons From Urban Combat.

"Who replaces him? What credibility he has, comes from his dad. So who comes next? Does it fall apart?" Oliker asked. "Does anyone in Moscow really know what’s going on in Chechnya?"

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