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How Chechen Strongman Kadyrov Uses Official Honors To Seek Prestige And Reward Allies

Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov (left) and Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia's National Guard, shake hands during a ceremony in Grozny to award decorations to military personnel and National Guard officers participating in the war in Ukraine.
Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov (left) and Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia's National Guard, shake hands during a ceremony in Grozny to award decorations to military personnel and National Guard officers participating in the war in Ukraine.

At the beginning of April, an elaborate exchange was played out in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, when federal Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin visited the region in Russia’s North Caucasus. Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov bestowed upon the senior national official the Order of Akhmad Kadyrov, the region’s highest honor, for “services to the Chechen Republic.”

And Bastyrkin awarded Kadyrov the Investigative Committee’s medal For Valor and Courage.

The medal for Bastrykin was one of many that Kadyrov has doled out in recent months to federal officials and other prominent figures in the political system constructed under President Vladimir Putin. Analysts say the honors are part of an effort by Kadyrov, who has ruled Chechnya since his appointment by Putin in 2007 and has been widely criticized for authoritarianism and accused of massive human rights abuses, to boost his prestige and influence outside the region -- mainly in Moscow.

“Handing out medals is a ‘royal prerogative,’” said Emil Aslan, a professor of politics at Charles University in Prague. “The higher the position of the person receiving the award, the higher the status of the person bestowing it -- in this case, Ramzan Kadyrov.”

Diamonds, Sapphires, And Rubies

The Order of Akhmad Kadyrov -- named for Ramzan Kadyrov’s father, the former president of Chechnya who was assassinated at a Victory Day parade in 2004 -- is a golden medal encrusted with 36 diamonds, sapphires, and rubies. Each medal costs 315,000 rubles ($4,125). At the end of 2022, the regional government ordered 43 of them for a total cost of 13. 5 million rubles ($177,000).

Over the years, Kadyrov has awarded the medal to federal figures including Russian National Guard head and Putin associate Viktor Zolotov and State Duma Deputy Leonid Slutsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’s faction in the lower house of the national legislature. In 2018, he gave the award to Aleksandr Zaldostanov, the head of the nationalist Night Wolves motorcycle gang that has served as a Russian soft-power tool in Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Last year, Kadyrov gave the honor to the Moscow-installed heads of the occupation authorities in two partially Russian-held regions of Ukraine, Leonid Pasechnik in Luhansk and Denis Pushilin in Donetsk.

“Handing out orders and medals enables Kadyrov to once again assert that he is a powerful personality who can reward and punish according to his royal whim,” Aslan said.

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Czech Caucasus expert Tomas Baranec told RFE/RL that the practice of a regional leader handing out awards to national figures was “unusual.”

“Kadyrov doesn’t -- and never has -- considered himself just the head of some tiny subject of the [Russian] Federation,” Baranec said. “And he really hasn’t been, since Chechnya is not an ordinary region under the current [Russian] power structure. Plus, Kadyrov has a strong desire to establish good connections at the federal level. Giving a medal to Bastrykin is one way of cementing such ties.”

North Caucasus human rights advocate Stanislav Dmitriyevsky describes the practice as a “form of domination” on Kadyrov’s part.

“After all, it is usually the older and more authoritative figure who does the awarding,” Dmitriyevsky said. “At least, when it comes to intragovernmental relations.”

'A Weakness For Such Games'

In addition to the awards for influential people on the federal level, Kadyrov also follows the more traditional authoritarian practice of bestowing honors on his relatives and political allies, as well as local celebrities such as athletes, artists, and bloggers.

“All dictators have a weakness for such games,” Dmitriyevsky said.

In March, he awarded a regional human rights defense award to himself, his mother, and, posthumously, to his father. The same month, he awarded medals For Excellence In Combating Terrorism to his 15-year-old son, Adam, and his 17-year-old son, Akhmat.

In June 2022, he awarded the Order of Akhmad Kadyrov to his 23-year-old daughter, Aishat, who is Chechnya’s culture minister. The honor was ostensibly for her “enormous contribution” to the sphere of culture. Other laureates include State Duma Deputy Adam Delimkhanov -- a close ally who last year publicly vowed to kill all the members of a Kadyrov critic’s family -- and two of his brothers.

For Kadyrov, handing out honors and gifts is “a signal of his status,” political scientist Aslan said: “It enables him to assert his status as the arbiter, the highest in the hierarchy.”

Over his years in power, Kadyrov has been accused by activists, opponents, and alleged victims of overseeing human rights abuses including abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings, assassinations of political opponents, and the persecution of sexual minorities. The Prosecutor-General’s Office and Bastrykin’s Investigative Committee have declined to investigate any of the allegations despite entreaties from rights groups.

Written by RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Caucasus.Realities.

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