For years, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has orchestrated mass protests in Grozny that might foster perceptions of him variously as the protector of oppressed Muslims or Russian President Vladimir Putin’s faithful "foot soldier.”
The mass meeting convened in Grozny on September 4 to protest the treatment of Burma's Muslim minority Rohingya is significant, however. On that occasion, Kadyrov appears to have first systematically fueled the anger of Russia’s Muslims against persecuted co-religionists by means of the troll factory he set up two years ago, then intervened as the Kremlin’s specially designated lightning rod to alleviate that anger.
The Grozny rally made headlines, but not because of the number of people possibly dragooned into attending. (The Chechen Interior Ministry claimed that over 1 million people congregated in the city center, of a total population of 1.4 million. But blogger Vladimir Bayev calculated that the venue in front of the grandiose Heart of Chechnya mosque could accommodate no more than 500,000 people, while RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service estimated attendance at 150,000.)
Rather, Kadyrov’s hint that he would oppose the Russian leadership in the event that it sided with the “Satans” responsible for crimes against the Rohingya appears to have been taken out of context and widely construed as a direct threat to Putin. That statement was made in a video clip uploaded on September 2 to Kadyrov’s Instagram account and which has since been removed, according to the news portal Caucasian Knot.
In that footage, which was characteristic of Kadyrov’s clumsy, muddled, and frequently illogical rhetoric, the Chechen leader declared that “even if Russia supports those Satans who are committing crimes, I am against Russia’s position. I have my own view, my position. I am more than certain that no one today will support killers and those who resort to violence, but there are certain nuances of state policy, and for that reason we should show understanding for what is happening and the way statesmen and politicians are behaving.”
On September 4, the Russian daily Kommersant quoted Kadyrov as expressing his gratitude to Putin for condemning the use of force against the Rohingya of Burma, also known as Myanmar.
Questioned the same day about the implications of Kadyrov’s statement, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented that “we know Muslims are reacting very emotionally to events in Myanmar." That formulation suggests that Peskov is used to Kadyrov losing the plot and regards such statements by him as mere sound and fury, signifying nothing. Putin himself declared the following day that Kadyrov was simply availing himself of the right all Russian citizens, including federation subject heads, have to express his personal opinion.
That measured reaction suggests an awareness in the Kremlin that while Kadyrov enjoys posing as the defender of oppressed Sunni Muslims worldwide, his chances of being formally recognized as such, let alone ever being empowered to act in that capacity, are minimal, because many prominent and respected Muslim theologians consider him a heretic, even though they may not necessarily say so publicly.
The son of a former mufti, Kadyrov has never been known to quote a single sura from the Koran. He has redefined what constitutes “traditional Sufi Islam” to accord a prominent place to Chechen Sufi saints and to incorporate the non-Islamic concepts of “holy water” and the standard Russian practice of Christmas/New Year trees. He has declared that “anyone who is embarrassed to rise to his feet when the flag of the Russian Federation is hoisted is not a true Muslim.”
And last year he incurred the displeasure of the Saudi Royal House by hosting in Grozny an international conference of theologians that adopted a resolution designating Salafism -- the strain of Islam professed in the Saudi Kingdom -- as “an aberrant sect.”
That said, from Kadyrov’s point of view, the Grozny protest demonstration nonetheless might have served several useful purposes.
First, it appeared aimed at underscoring his role as the national spokesman on issues relating to Muslims abroad and as the coordinator of protests against unjust treatment of them. The Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan was swift to condemn a spontaneous protest by some 2,000 people in Makhachkala on September 3 against the Burmese reprisals against the Rohingya.
Only after the Grozny rally was permission given for analogous protest actions elsewhere in the North Caucasus, for example in Cherkessk, the capital of Karachhayevo-Cherkessia.
Second, the timing of the Grozny protest served to deflect popular attention away from issues that reflect badly on Kadyrov. (One blogger questioned why Kadyrov chose to stage the protest now, when the reprisals against the Rohingya have been going on for years.)
Over the previous week alone, the prosecutor demanded seven-year jail terms for two young men accused of planning to join the armed resistance in Syria; a Chechen parliamentarian has been murdered, possibly by the North Caucasus insurgency that Kadyrov claims has been wiped out; and one of Kadyrov’s financial backers in Moscow has been suspended from United Russia after firing his gun in a Moscow hotel.
Third, the rally provided an opportunity for one of Kadyrov’s most feared allies, parliament speaker Magomed Daudov, to assume the role of wise elder statesman.
Daudov appealed to those young men who -- whether or not they were egged on by Kadyrov’s trolls -- were calling for military intervention to protect their fellow Muslims and to show wisdom and constraint, declaring that “what we are called to do is to pray for our brother and draw the attention of world leaders to what the authorities in Myanmar are doing.”