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Publicly Out Of Step With Kremlin, Chechnya's Kadyrov Rallies Around Rohingya Plight

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov addresses a rally in Grozny expressing support for the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma on September 4.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov addresses a rally in Grozny expressing support for the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma on September 4.

MOSCOW -- Hundreds of Muslims protesting angrily outside the Burmese Embassy here in the Russian capital. Strident calls for an end to the "genocide" of Muslims in Burma. And a flash mob to #SaveRohingya on Russian websites ahead of the UN General Assembly.

A sizable Russian campaign to support the beleaguered Rohingya Muslims of Burma, also known as Myanmar, was born over the weekend.

However, the effort was spearheaded not by President Vladimir Putin, the State Duma, or even Russia's Foreign Ministry, but rather by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

And the push -- punctuated by Kadyrov lamenting that he couldn't call "a nuclear strike" on forces persecuting the Rohingya -- illustrates the considerable domestic clout of the leader of Russia's southern, mainly Muslim republic of Chechnya -- just one of Russia's 84 recognized regions.

But it also appears to signal Kadyrov's outsize foreign-policy ambitions, including ones that don't necessarily meld with Kremlin plans.

"For the Kremlin, these statements are a nasty surprise," Aleksei Malashenko*, research director at the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute in Berlin and author of numerous books and articles on Islam, says of Kadyrov's Rohingya rhetoric.

'A Muslim Leader'

At just 40, Kadyrov holds unparalleled power for a regional governor, the result, analysts say, of an arrangement with the Kremlin following two bloody wars in which Kadyrov has been given a free hand and generous financial backing in return for stability in the historically rebellious North Caucasus republic.

Regularly criticized for presiding over shocking human rights abuses in the region, Kadyrov has studiously cultivated relations with foreign dignitaries in the Middle East, including in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and among Palestinian leaders.

"If Russia is going to support these jackals committing crimes today, then I am against Russia's position because I have my view, my position," Kadyrov told Instagram viewers via live video stream on September 2 in a reference to a Burmese military operation that has sent thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing that Southeast Asian state and prompted fears of a major humanitarian crisis.

Two days later, on September 4, he mobilized thousands in the Chechen capital, Grozny, where he further criticized the treatment of the Muslim minority by Burmese officials.

WATCH: Protests In Russia Support Burma's Rohingya

Protests In Russia Support Burma's Rohingya
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By so publicly taking up the cause of Burma's Rohingya Muslims, Kadyrov appears to be seeking to cement his political weight at home by casting himself as a Muslim leader of global import.

"Ramzan wins from this," Malashenko says. "Ramzan wins hands down. Because he is positioning himself as a Muslim leader. Not a Caucasian leader. Not even a Russian leader. But a Muslim leader defending the Muslims of Burma."

A Problem For Putin?

The September 4 rally looked like a signature Kadyrov event, complete with lavish praise of Putin ("the chief of a great state, the leader of a nation with centuries-long religious and moral foundations, a politician and a person who respects Islam"); a seemingly inflated official turnout figure of over 1 million (nearly Chechnya's entire population); and a call, by a man accused of presiding over major rights violations and political violence at home, for an end to the bloodshed in Burma.

In an earlier Instagram video uploaded to YouTube, Kadyrov condemned the Russian media for allegedly ignoring the plight of Muslims in Burma. He suggested that if he were Russia's leader, he would take military action in response to unspecified calls for troops to help Muslims.

"It's impossible to send troops there, because this is the prerogative of the state," Kadyrov said. "If it were my will, and this were possible, I would launch a nuclear strike. I would simply destroy the people killing children, women, old people."

Malashenko calls Kadyrov's outspokenness on the issue "a problem for Russia."

"His actions -- the Moscow demonstration, the Grozny demonstration -- they have an undermining effect: they act against interconfessional solidarity in Russia," Malashenko says. "Look online, the demonstrations are being condemned and people are writing bad things about Muslims."

*CORRECTION: This article has been amended to correctly identify Mr. Malashenko as research director at the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute in Berlin.

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