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Is Chechnya Serious About Cleaning Up Its Image?

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s stance toward any manifestations of armed resistance to his regime has been consistently brutal and implacable.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s stance toward any manifestations of armed resistance to his regime has been consistently brutal and implacable.

The Grozny trial of two young men on charges of allegedly planning to travel to Syria to sign up with the Islamic State extremist group has elicited a public demonstration of support for the accused by their relatives and fellow villagers that is unprecedented in recent years, Novaya Gazeta reported on August 7.

Similarly unprecedented is the failure of the Chechen authorities to punish those who dared step out of line and question the official indictment. Whether that forbearance was prompted by the international outcry triggered by Novaya Gazeta’s revelations four months ago about reprisals against gays in Chechnya is unclear, however.

It is a truism that Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s unique position among the heads of Russia’s 83 federation subjects derives in the first instance from the unwritten pact between him and President Vladimir Putin, under which Moscow provided astronomical sums of money to fund postconflict reconstruction in Chechnya while the various armed units subordinate to Kadyrov waged a low-level war of attrition against the surviving remnants of the pro-independence Chechen resistance and the so-called Caucasus Emirate that superseded it in 2007.

Whether because the resistance was widely believed to be behind the terrorist bombing that killed his father in May 2004, or because his standing with Putin was contingent on keeping his side of that bargain, Kadyrov’s stance toward any manifestations of armed resistance to the regime has been consistently brutal and implacable. He routinely demonized militants as “shaytans” (Satans) and “terrorists” either recruited by Western intelligence services or motivated by radical Islamist sentiment.

And Kadyrov’s wrath was not confined to the fighters themselves: over the past several years, human rights watchdogs have chronicled numerous cases in which the homes of fighters’ relatives have been torched and their families expelled from Chechnya.

Public warnings by Putin that Kadyrov, like any other Russian citizen, is required to abide by the law have had no visible impact. Neither has the argument advanced by federal Nationalities Minister Igor Barinov that such reprisals against militants’ families can prove counterproductive, insofar as they lead to even more people becoming radicalized.

Nor is there any statute of limitations with regard to suspected involvement with the Chechen resistance: a man suspected of participating in the mass hostage-taking in June 1995 in Budyonnovsk masterminded by Kadyrov’s onetime idol, maverick field commander Shamil Basayev, was arrested in Grozny last month.

The last remnants of the Chechen wing of the “Caucasus Emirate” left Russia three years ago to join the armed resistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Kadyrov’s crackdown continues nonetheless. These days the target is not just the few desperate figures who periodically take up arms against the police and security forces, as in Grozny in December 2016 and the northern settlement of Naurskaya in March 2017. In the wake of such attacks -- and perhaps to appease Kadyrov’s anger -- police are ordered to round up any young men whose loyalty to his brutal regime is open to question.

The two young men currently on trial, Magomed Taramov and Djamalay Tazbiyev, fall into the latter category. They were apprehended in late January in a roundup of men suspected of contacts with the group that launched armed attacks on police in and near Grozny in December. According to Novaya Gazeta, the two testified in court that they were subjected to beatings and electric shocks to induce them to confess that since June 2016 they had been preparing to travel to Syria to sign up with Islamic State. Both had categorically denied any such intention.

Despite the risk of official reprisals -- such as being dismissed from one’s job or being deprived of social benefits -- their families and neighbors have come out unanimously in their support and hired lawyers to defend them. No punitive action against them has been reported to date.

That anomaly may reflect a belated realization of the damage caused by negative media coverage, particularly in terms of deterring investment. Chechnya’s hard-line Nationality Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and Press and Information Minister Djambulat Umarov announced last month that his ministry has signed an agreement with a public relations company with the aim of improving Chechnya’s image and its potential for investment and tourism.

At the same time, a group of 20 journalists from France, Japan, China, Georgia, Tajikistan, and elsewhere were invited to Chechnya in the hope that they would dispel what Umarov termed the “myth” that human rights are routinely violated there.

Meanwhile, nine more young men are on trial in the northern Nadterechny district on similar charges of planning to travel to Syria to fight against the Assad leadership even though, according to their pretrial testimony, which was made available to RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service, they were unable to put those plans into practice because none of them could raise the $3,000 they calculated was needed to cover travel costs via Moscow and Turkey.

All nine were apprehended and indicted on the basis of the testimony of one man, Islam Dzukayev; their own testimony coincides in some instances word for word. Several of them are said to have been acquainted with Islam Naibov, who was killed in October 2016 after a knife attack on a police officer, or with Islam Altamirov, one of the young men killed during the Grozny fighting in December 2016. They are quoted as saying both Naibov and Altamirov sought to persuade them to join a group of militants based in Chechnya, rather than head for Syria, but they refused.

The nine were detained in early February; the insurgency website Kavkazcenter quotes their families as saying the very fact that they were not summarily executed, as some other suspects reportedly were, is grounds for hope. All nine deny the charges against them, which they say were fabricated.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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