A massive crowd turned out in Chechnya to voice support for the region’s Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and to echo his escalating condemnation of the Russian opposition.
The January 22 rally in Grozny, the Chechen capital, followed more than a week of menacing rhetoric unleashed by Kadyrov and his allies against liberal Russian politicians, activists, and journalists.
It added to tension between Kadyrov and the targets of his threatening remarks, who have urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to rein in the regional leader.
Chechnya's Interior Ministry said as many 1 million people took part in the rally, but the crowd did not look that large and Chechnya’s entire population is under 1.4 million.
Reports earlier in the week said that state-sector workers such as teachers were being compelled by the government to attend. Two people at the rally told Reuters they were forced to turn up.
Participants shouted "God is Great!" in Arabic and declared their loyalty to both Kadyrov and Putin, who made the former separatist rebel the head of the mostly Muslim region in Russia’s North Caucasus in 2007.
Demonstrators credited Kadyrov with bringing stability to Chechnya after two separatist wars in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Kadyrov has ruled with an iron fist and is accused of overseeing widespread human rights abuses and assassinations. Critics say Putin has tolerated or encouraged Kadyrov because he relies on the regional strongman to maintain control of Chechnya.
At the rally, praise of Kadyrov was accompanied by the vilification of the same politicians, activists, and journalists branded Western-backed traitors and "enemies of the people" by the Chechen leader and his lieutenants in recent remarks.
Demonstrators denounced prominent Putin foes including anticorruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny, opposition activist Ilya Yashin, and exiled former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whom some participants called a "faggot."
They held placards with slogans such as "Yashin get out of Russia" and "Navalny is a friend to the West and an enemy to Russia."
Ralliers also targeted journalists including Aleksei Veneditkov, the editor in chief of radio station Ekho Moskvy, a frequent platform for opposition views.
"We want to strongly oppose those who throw mud at the country, call for sanctions against Russia, and attempt to escalate tensions," Husain Soltagereyev, the head of Chechnya's Council of Trade Unions and the event's organizer, told the state-run TASS news agency.
Several prominent Kadyrov supporters traveled from Moscow to attend the rally, including State Duma lawmaker Adam Delimkhanov, who is from Chechnya, and nationalist biker Aleksandr Zaldostanov, a staunch Putin supporter who is known as “The Surgeon."
"A very deep bow to the leader of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov for his honesty and straightforwardness," Zaldostanov he told the crowd. "We can only answer the enemies if we stand united, united with the Russian president."
Kadyrov has always been a vocal critic of Putin’s opponents. But he stepped up his rhetoric with a January 12 diatribe calling opposition activists “enemies of the people” -- a phrase that evokes the era of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin -- who should be tried for "sabotage."
In an article in the daily Izvestia on January 19, he called them “jackals” who must be punished to “save Russia” and said they should be sent to psychiatric hospitals.
Russian activists and international rights groups such as Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) have urged Putin to take action following statements by Kadyrov and his associates, who have also used social media to vilify his detractors.
Earlier this week, Delimkhanov posted a video on Instagram showing himself and other men chanting "Kadyrov is the rock of Russia -- Allahu Akhbar!" on a Moscow bridge close to the one where Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead in February 2015.
Many of Kadyrov's critics believe he was behind Nemtsov's slaying. Kadyrov denies involvement, and efforts by relatives and associates of Nemtsov to have him questioned have been thwarted.
In a letter to Putin posted on the CPJ's website on January 21, the organization warned that "menacing rhetoric against government critics has often been followed by violence, and has encouraged self-censorship among reporters."
The letter followed a statement by Amnesty a day earlier urging Russian authorities to "respond to a string of thinly veiled threats against several prominent human rights defenders, media workers, and political activists" by the "political leadership of Chechnya."
"Such threats should not be taken lightly," Amnesty said.
The opposition Yabloko party has announced plans to hold a street protest in Moscow on January 26 to demand that Kadyrov be dismissed.