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The Week In Russia: The Chechnya Connection 

Supporters of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov hold a tumultuous protest in central Grozny on February 2 to denounce human rights lawyer Abubakar Yangulbayev and his family.

In 1997, NATO and Russia pledged to cooperate on European security, basing their ties on a “shared commitment” to principles such as respect for human rights and the rule of law. Twenty-five years later, the words and actions of Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed leader highlight one of the reasons that didn’t work out.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Meanwhile, In Chechnya

At first glance, some of the photos and footage shot in Russia this week seem like they might depict one of President Vladimir Putin’s worst nightmares: violent anti-government protests in the streets. In one video, men clad in black smashed posters with sticks and smoke rose from the pavement as a crowd looked on.

In fact, the images were from a protest that political analysts said was clearly organized by the Kremlin-backed government of Chechnya and its leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, the former rebel fighter who has headed the region in the North Caucasus since Putin put him in place in 2007.

The posters being whacked with wooden sticks and set on fire in the regional capital, Grozny, depicted members of the Yangulbayev family, which has been targeted by Kadyrov and senior figures in his ruling circle with legal actions, verbal abuse, alleged abductions, and death threats since late December.

Earlier this week, Kadyrov suggested that family members who have left Chechnya should return and surrender to the authorities or be tracked down and “annihilated.”

On February 2, Adam Delimkhanov, a close Kadyrov ally who is a member of the Russian parliament, vowed to pursue the entire family of lawyer and anti-torture activist Abubakar Yangulbayev "until we cut off your heads, until we kill you all."

Two week earlier, Abubakar Yangulbayev’s mother, Zarema Yangulbayeva, who also goes by the last name Musayeva, was forcibly taken from her apartment in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod, more than 1,500 kilometers north of Chechnya, by masked men who said they were Chechen police. She was brought to Grozny, where she was accused of attacking a police officer, arrested, and jailed. She could face years in prison if tried and convicted.

In Russia and abroad, a great deal of attention has been focused on Russia’s outward-facing actions -- its buildup of more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders and its push for a rollback of the results of the Cold War, in the form of sweeping restrictions on NATO membership and military activity.

The persecution of the Yangulbayev family shines a particularly unforgiving light on a longstanding situation that some observers say may come to haunt Putin more than any street protest or opposition movement: The existence of a regional leader who frequently flouts Russian law and gets away with it.

It also points up one of the ways the issues of human rights and the rule of law -- while currently overshadowed by disputes over security, power, and geopolitics -- have contributed to the tension between Russia and the West since Putin came to power, and particularly in the past decade.

'A Shared Commitment'

While Russia’s dramatically stepped-up pressure on Ukraine, the United States, and NATO has focused almost entirely on issues of security, foreign policy, and international relations, there are apparent connections with the situation in Chechnya -- and those connections have to do with human rights.

To support its demand for an end to NATO enlargement, including a binding guarantee that Ukraine will never be a member, as well as a withdrawal of NATO forces from the 14 nations that joined the alliance after May 1997, including the three Baltic states and several former Warsaw Pact members, Russia has turned to several deals, documents, and agreements reached since shortly before the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991.

One such document is the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, an agreement that, two years before Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined the alliance, established a framework for an effort to “build together a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security.” as its opening paragraph declares.

“Proceeding from the principle that the security of all states in the Euro-Atlantic community is indivisible, NATO and Russia will work together to contribute to the establishment in Europe of common and comprehensive security based on the allegiance to shared values, commitments and norms of behavior,” the Founding Act states a little lower down.

Moscow has used the concept of “indivisible security” to underpin the demands it has leveled at the United States and NATO, arguing that the alliance’s enlargement and military activities have come at the expense of Russia’s security. But Western governments say it’s Russia that has been cherry-picking from these documents -- ignoring commitments such as “refraining from the threat or use of force against each other” and “respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their own security.”

Russia has also made little or no mention of pledges in the Founding Act and other documents to defend democracy and human rights.

NATO and Russia “will base their relations on a shared commitment” to principles that include “acknowledgement of the vital role that democracy, political pluralism, the rule of law, and respect for human rights and civil liberties and the development of free market economies play in the development of common prosperity and comprehensive security,” the Founding Act states.

The Fabric Of The Nation

Rights groups, Western governments, and domestic critics of Putin say that he has rolled back each one of those over 22 years in power – and that when it comes to human rights and civil liberties, in particular, the past year has produced an unprecedented government campaign to restrict freedoms and crush dissent.

Then there is Chechnya, where critics say Kadyrov tramples on those principles on a daily basis. And while he operates outside the law, the Russian president does little or nothing to stop him, because he relies on him to maintain control over the region following two devastating separatist wars there -- including one that helped propel Putin into the country's highest office at the end of 1999.

Amid the onslaught on the Yangulbayev family, the Kremlin issued a terse, two-sentence statement late on February 2 saying that Putin and Kadyrov had met and discussed “the socioeconomic development” of Chechnya as well as “themes connected to the work of law enforcement organs.”

Translation, presumably: Putin told Kadyrov to cool off a bit, at least in public, and not to go around threatening to annihilate people or behead them.

But if history is any judge, a dressing down -- if that’s what it was -- is as far as it will go. Nobody in Chechnya, least of all Kadyrov, is likely to face any formal discipline, and the methods used by the forces under his control are unlikely to change.

The seizure of Musayeva in Nizhny Novgorod and the threats aired by Kadyrov, Delimkhanov, and other Chechen leaders against the Yangulbayev family “are all violations of federal law,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“If federal law does not apply in one of the republics [of Russia]…and if its head is able to do what was done in Nizhny Novgorod, this means that the legal fabric of the country is being destroyed,’ Kolesnikov told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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