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'Brutal' Chechen Leader Kadyrov The Face Of Balkan Music Festival


Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov

BILECA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Ramzan Kadyrov loves a party.

The flamboyantly militant Chechen leader and his cronies famously clowned with a visiting Mike Tyson. He flew in former Brazilian soccer stars for a celebrity match against his own private team. And he hired Hollywood stars for his 35th birthday.

His critics and perceived opponents have had less reason to celebrate a regime marked by alleged political assassinations, kidnappings, and other systematic persecution.

Rights groups describe Kadyrov's 14-year tenure as ruthless and oppressive, petty and vindictive, and serially abusive of women and minorities.

But that hasn't deterred a local youth group in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina from adopting Kadyrov as the face of a summertime Chechnya Fest music festival that they say actually has nothing to do with Chechnya or its strongman.

They're using images of Kadyrov, in full military dress, in promotional materials on- and off-line to attract visitors to the festival in Bileca, in the Serb-dominated part of the country, on July 22.

"This isn't directed against anyone," an organizer from the Jezerina Youth Group, Vladimir Milidragovic, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "The festival is visited more and more each year, and from 200 visitors at the first festival we reached more than 2,000 [attendees] at the 2019 festival."

"People of all nations come here," he said.

Milidragovic said the festival -- headlined by "DJ Terrible" -- is humanitarian in its aim and proceeds will go to "socially useful activities."

Some of this year's money will go toward medical treatment for an unnamed local resident, he said.

So why Kadyrov?

Kadyrov, a ceaseless self-promoter on social media, is inarguably Chechnya's most recognizable man.

But Bileca is not home to an ethnic Chechen community, nor does it have any other obvious connections to Kadyrov or Russia.

Milidragovic said the Chechnya Fest's name stems from the way Bileca's other residents used to tease the "once-naughty young men from Jezerina" by calling them "Chechens" as a playful reference to the deadly serious rebels in southern Russia in the 2000s.

"We put it there, but we don't have anything against anyone," Milidragovic said. "Since the first festival started seven years ago we haven't changed the name and it's stayed to this day."

A promotional banner for Chechnya Fest was spotted on the highway between Sarajevo and the Adriatic Coast and its Kadyrov connection tweeted out this week by Montenegrin civic activist and publicist Ljubomir Filipovic.

Filipovic suggested it was even "more disturbing" that Trebjesa Brewery in neighboring Montenegro, which is owned by U.S.-based Molson Coors Beverage Company, was a sponsor.

Local representatives for Molson Coors did not respond to RFE/RL questions about the amount of the brewery's support for Chechnya Fest or its marketing association with Kadyrov.

Bileca is a town of about 10,000 on the tip of a scenic lake in Republika Srpska, the entity that along with the Bosniak and Croat federation makes up Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Its population is overwhelmingly Orthodox Serb, up from around 80 percent in previous decades to over 98 percent in the 2013 census.

The town of Bileca is supporting this year's Chechnya Fest with a grant of 500 Bosnian marks (around $295).

Mayor Veselin Vujovic called Chechnya Fest's organizers all "good Serbs and patriots."

He also said he wasn't aware that they were using any widely criticized Chechen strongman to promote their event.

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"If that's the case, they'll have to change it without further ado," Vujovic said, adding that he didn't know who Kadyrov was. "If that character is there, they won't be able to put him on the posters."

But after being told that Kadyrov is a longtime loyalist of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the mayor said: "Then that changes things."

"When it comes to Putin, there's no dilemma for me," Vujovic said. "I have personal sympathy for him, because the man is a great leader."

Putin appointed Kadyrov to lead Chechnya in 2007, three years after Kadyrov's Kremlin-backed father was killed in a bombing.

Last month, Putin credited Kadyrov with turning a war-torn republic into "one of the safest" places in Russia.

"With your personal participation -- direct, sometimes really direct, personal participation -- indeed, Chechnya has become one of the safest constituent entities of the Russian Federation," Putin said in a videoconference last month to endorse another term for Kadyrov, according to the Kremlin. "It is absolutely perfect."

Human Rights Watch's associate director for the region, Tanya Lokshina, described the endorsement of "Kadyrov and his brutal Chechen regime" as sending "a grim signal about justice" there.

She called Putin's characterization of Chechnya as especially safe is "particularly cynical."

She cited the abduction just last month by Chechen and Daghestani police of the daughter of a Kadyrov associate who was said to be fleeing harassment for her sexual orientation, as well as other abductions and extrajudicial punishment.

RFE/RL and other media have reported in detail about waves of antigay "purges" in Chechnya.

The young men of Jezerina were warned there might be a backlash against associating an otherwise carefree cultural event with a purported serial rights abuser.

WATCH: Ramzan Kadyrov with Mike Tyson

"It started as a joke, but I've suggested to them many times they they'll get negative publicity and a problem further developing the festival," Nebojsa Rogan, from the Bileca Cultural Center, told RFE/RL. "But they've been using it for six years and won't change the name or the way they promote the festival."

He said the Jezerina Youth Group does a lot of good things for the community. They've built a children's playground and an outdoor fitness station there, Rogan said, in addition to other humanitarian activities.

But he said the "Kadyrov" marketing ploy is inappropriate.

"I don't really support that publicity or that style," Rogan said. "Some 'DJ Terrible' performs there and they have posters with Kalashnikovs and Kadyrovs, and I don't know how to explain that."

Written by Andy Heil in Prague based on reporting by Gojko Veselinovic
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