Four months after Ramzan Kadyrov called Mikhail Khodorkovsky his personal enemy, the feud between the two men is intensifying.
In an extensive interview with the news site Meduza last week, exiled former Yukos oil company CEO Khodorkovsky made a number of thoughtful and apposite but overwhelmingly negative comments about Chechen Republic head Kadyrov and his role in Russian politics. Predictably, those statements occasioned a spate of denunciations and rebuttals by public figures and organizations in Grozny seeking to uphold the carefully crafted image of Kadyrov as the "guarantor of peace and stability" in Chechnya.
In the Meduza interview, Khodorkovsky characterized Kadyrov and his minions as "a territorially isolated ethnic criminal group" that numbers in the tens of thousands and "is seeking to extend its influence across Russia's entire territory."
Khodorkovsky said he considered Kadyrov to be Russian President Vladimir Putin's "personal vassal," but cannot say to what extent Kadyrov constitutes "a structural element of the present political system," and is not sure to what extent Putin can control the various security bodies subordinate to Kadyrov.
Khodorkovsky was pardoned by Putin and flown out of Russia in December 2013 after having been tried and convicted on charges of financial crimes his allies say were fabricated, and spending over a decade in prison. His comments substantiate long-standing concerns about Kadyrov's methods in Chechnya and his clout beyond its borders.
Kadyrov caused controversy in March when he defended the main suspect in the killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and raised hackles last month when he told Chechen law enforcement officers to "shoot to kill" Interior Ministry forces from elsewhere in Russia if they conducted operations in Chechnya without prior notification.
Khodorkovsky observed that, like Putin, Kadyrov "tries to gauge public opinion and other forces on Russian territory with the help of provocative statements or actions. And then he waits [to see] what kind of reaction [is forthcoming]. If the reaction is not harsh enough, he takes a further step. If it is harsh, that means he will wait for a short while, and then take it."
Critics of the Kremlin say Putin tolerates abuses of human rights and national laws in Chechnya because he believes Kadyrov is the sole figure capable of keeping in check the low-level Islamist insurgency there.
As he had done at the time, Khodorkovsky attributed a search last month of the Moscow office of his Open Russia organization to Kadyrov's displeasure over a documentary film Open Russia was making that focuses on abductions and torture of Chechen civilians and on the nature of Kadyrov's ties to Putin. (A short trailer for the film can be seen here).
The premiere of that film was scheduled for May 8, but on May 7 Open Russia announced that it had been postponed in order to incorporate additional material.
Also on May 7, the Grozny propaganda machine responded to Khodorkovsky's Meduza interview with a torrent of vilification, some of it potentially libelous.
Twenty-four Chechen writers, journalists, and academics signed a statement alleging that Khodorkovsky, "having been deprived of the opportunity to exploit and rob his own country, has zealously set about blackening its leadership." They go on to conflate Khodorkovsky's characterization of the Chechen leadership as "an ethnic criminal group" with blanket hostility toward the Chechen people as a whole. They further argue that the high regard in which Putin holds Kadyrov is entirely justified.
The Chechen Republic's Public Chamber accused Khodorkovsky of "seeking to play the 'Chechen card'...to incite mistrust of the policy of the republic's leadership [and] to drive a wedge into Russian society."
Sergei Vishnevsky of the official Chechen news agency Grozny-Inform branded Khodorkovsky "not just a thief and a traitor, but an insolent and shameless provocateur." He accused him of having financed radical Chechen field commanders Shamil Basayev and Khattab during the second (1999-2000) Chechen war in a concerted effort to dismember the Russian Federation.
This is not the first time Khodorkovsky and Kadyrov have crossed swords. In January, Kadyrov branded Khodorkovsky his personal enemy after the latter appealed to international media to reprint, as a gesture of solidarity, the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that triggered the attack by Islamist gunmen on the editorial office of the Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Khodorkovsky shrugged off Kadyrov's implicit threat of reprisal, which he argued was intended to serve exactly the same purpose as the attack on Charlie Hebdo: to intimidate and silence dissenting voices.
-- Liz Fuller