It was only to be expected that Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's entourage would fall over themselves to defend him against the implication by Dozhd TV journalist Ksenia Sobchak that his orders to raze to the ground the homes of the families of Chechen fighters who kill police officers were unconstitutional.
Less expected, however, was the number of Russian State Duma deputies who have likewise sought to exonerate Kadyrov, while denouncing what they termed Sobchak's failure to comprehend the nature of the "antiterrorism" campaign underway in Chechnya.
Sobchak raised the issue on December 18 during Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual press conference, asking him to comment in his capacity as a lawyer on the constitutionality of Kadyrov's demand two weeks earlier for an even more intense crackdown on anyone suspected of links to the Islamic insurgency.
Addressing a meeting of law-enforcement personnel on December 5, one day after Chechen insurgents occupied two buildings in Grozny and killed 14 police officers, Kadyrov said that henceforth the families of insurgents will be held responsible for their actions. He warned specifically that the relatives of fighters who kill police officers will be expelled from Chechnya and barred from returning, and their homes will be razed to the ground.
Sobchak construed Kadyrov's words as "a de facto declaration that the laws of the Russian Federation and the Russian Constitution are not enforced on the territory of the Chechen Republic."
Responding to Sobchak's question, Putin stressed that, "in Russia, everyone must abide by the laws of the country. No one is considered guilty until he has been sentenced by a court." But he then proceeded to argue that "in the overwhelming majority of cases," the relatives of "terrorists" have advance knowledge of their plans. That does not, however, Putin continued, "give anyone, including the leader of Chechnya, the right to engage in extrajudicial reprisals." Putin disclosed that an investigation is already underway to establish the identity of the masked men who torched the homes of fighters' relatives.
Putin further acknowledged that Kadyrov's "emotional" outburst was understandable in light of the casualties the Chechen police incurred during the fighting, and that it was possibly made in response to the public mood at a mass meeting Kadyrov convened in Grozny to denounce "terrorism." That rally, however, took place on December 6, the day after Kadyrov announced that the principle of collective responsibility was to be extended to fighters' relatives.
Kadyrov's press secretary Alvi Karimov, who was present at Putin's press conference, immediately branded Sobchak's remarks both libelous and untrue, and he hinted that legal action might be taken against her. He further accused her of "distorting the facts," and categorically denied that Kadyrov has ever violated the constitution.
State Duma deputy and former Chechen Republic Nationalities, Press, and Information Minister Shamsail Saraliyev, who in recent months has emerged as a vocal promoter of Kadyrov's political credo, similarly dismissed as "ravings" Sobchak's insinuation that Chechnya does not abide by Russian law. Saraliyev rejected any possible connection between Kadyrov's statement and the subsequent burning of homes, which he attributed to the fact that "now peace has been restored, people are angry with the terrorists and those who abet them."
It is worth noting that neither Karimov nor Saraliyev is quoted as making any reference to Putin's response to Sobchak, in particular his assertion that no one, including Kadyrov, has the right to engage in extrajudicial reprisals. The same holds true for other State Duma deputies and Public Chamber members who commented on Sobchak's question. Vladimir Vasilev, who heads the Duma faction of the majority United Russia faction, affirmed that "we support the actions of Ramzan Kadyrov in fighting terrorism within the framework of the law."
Olga Batalina, who chairs the Duma Committee on Labor and Social Policy, construed Sobchak's words as "an insult to the Chechen people," given that Chechnya "is essentially defending the whole of Russia against penetration by terrorist groups." She praised Kadyrov's role in restoring Chechnya and "uniting the Chechen people," and expressed pride in "those Chechens who secured the release of the Life News journalists" detained in Ukraine in May. Kadyrov's plenipotentiary in Ukraine, Ramzan Tsitsulayev, reportedly fled from Russia to Kyiv earlier this month after a botched attempt to arrest him in Moscow in connection with an illegal cash withdrawals racket.
Andrey Lugovoy (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia), who is deputy chair of the Duma Security Committee, argued that the question of how best to fight terrorism should be left to professionals. He categorically denied that Kadyrov had advocated extrajudicial reprisals, explaining that the Chechen leader was clearly referring to the insurgents' support personnel.
Vyacheslav Bochorov, a member of the Public Chamber who participated in the operation that ended the September 2004 Beslan hostage-taking, said Sobchak's question shows clearly that she does not support "effective measures against terrorism."
There is of course no way to determine whether or not those statements in support of Kadyrov are part of a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign on his behalf, a campaign that may well culminate in the ongoing probe establishing that it was insurgents themselves who torched the houses of their slain comrades-in-arms' families in order to embarrass Kadyrov. That conclusion would be in line with Kadyrov's assertion to "Izvestia" that "the fighters of today have not strayed from the right path, they are sick. There is no way to cure them; all you can do is destroy them."
(Never mind that blaming the Chechen insurgents is difficult to reconcile either with Kadyrov's assertion that there are no fighters left in Chechnya, or with eyewitness reports from Gudermes that the buildings were demolished under the supervision of uniformed servicemen who first cordoned off the street and then brought in bulldozers.)
One final detail worthy of note is Sobchak's earlier cordial relationship with Kadyrov. The daughter of Putin's one-time mentor, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, Ksenia was a member of Putin's closest inner circle until she defected to the political opposition two years ago. In January 2005, she accompanied Kadyrov to the ceremonial opening of a waterpark in Gudermes.
-- Liz Fuller