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Apr 20, 2017 | 09:03 GMT

Chechnya's Independent Streak Is Growing

Chechnya's Growing Independent Streak
(NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

For weeks, rumors have swirled that Chechen authorities have been detaining, torturing and killing homosexual men in the Russian republic. Foreign governments have called on the Kremlin to investigate the reports, but Moscow has been steadfast in its dismissal of them. If they prove accurate, though, the extent of the actions would serve as yet another example of how the autonomous region and its longtime president, Ramzan Kadyrov, continue to operate outside Moscow's parameters — setting his presidency on a collision course with the Kremlin.

The stream of reports detailing the brutal crackdowns on Chechnya's gay communities has drawn the world's attention. Foreign governments and human rights groups are beginning to pressure the Chechen and Russian governments to look into the accusations, which stem from an investigation by Novaya Gazeta. The paper is one of the last independent news outlets in Russia, and the Kremlin constantly refutes its reports. On April 1, Novaya Gazeta wrote that more than 100 gay men in Chechnya had been detained and at least three had been killed. Human rights defenders in the region, as well as unnamed sources from Chechen state agencies, confirmed the reports to the newspaper. Moreover, gay Chechens who have fled the country have told similar stories in interviews with Western media outlets.

Map of Chechnya

A later report by Novaya Gazeta claimed that the detainees were being held at a secret makeshift prison at an old military base on the outskirts of Argun, where they were subjected to electric shocks and other forms of torture. Some were released only after their families paid exorbitant ransoms. The country director for Human Rights Watch in Moscow, Tanya Lokshina, said her organization has received similar reports. Over the past week, protesters reacting to the news have descended on Russian embassies across Europe. And many European and U.S. politicians have called on the Kremlin to address the outlet's findings, including U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who on April 19 held a meeting on human rights violations that included criticism of Russia.

Meanwhile, Kadyrov's press secretary called the reports "absolute lies," adding that homosexuals didn't exist in Chechnya. The Chechen government's human rights council said it could find no proof supporting Novaya Gazeta's story. On April 13, the outlet and its employees said they received threats over the reports after Chechen Muslim clerics and community leaders adopted a resolution calling for "retribution for instigators." Chechnya's regional prosecutor's office announced April 17 that it would investigate the newspaper's accounts of the detentions. However, it's unlikely that any investigation would incriminate the highly authoritarian Chechen officials.

With international attention to the situation rising, Russian President Vladimir Putin called Kadyrov to Moscow on April 19 for an unplanned meeting, in which the Chechen leader denied the accusations against his government. Moreover, Kadyrov claimed the reports were a personal attack against him. Though Russia has a spotty record on homosexual rights, the Chechen cases go beyond the Kremlin's typical crackdowns. The unscheduled visit was likely an attempt by Putin to quash the media hype while reining in the Chechen leader.

The recent events only add to a string of incidents and scandals that point to a growing movement toward ultraconservatism and autonomy in Chechnya — a trend that will cause concern in Moscow. Since succeeding his assassinated father more than a decade ago, Kadyrov has tightened his grip on the Caucasus republic. He rules with a iron fist and enjoys the devout loyalty of most of the Chechen people, as well as the country's robust security forces. With his ability to control what was once a war-torn region, he has gained the trust of the Kremlin — and more important, of Putin. An unofficial contract has long been in place between the two: As long as Kadyrov keeps Chechnya stable and suppresses its secessionist tendencies, he can rule it as his personal fiefdom.

But Kadyrov has been acting further and further outside the Kremlin's bounds. In recent years, the Chechen leader and heavyweights from the Russian security services have been locked in a struggle for power and influence that has manifested in the assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsovarguments over federal funding and battles for control over lucrative energy assets.

The Chechen leader has acted as if Chechnya were a sovereign country — not a Russian republic. Kadyrov has taken foreign tours of the Middle East and North Africa and has received several Middle Eastern leaders during their visits to Russia, with some even making special trips to Chechnya. In the past two years, Kadyrov has hosted meetings with Jordanian King Abdullah II, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Moscow itself does not have the warmest of relations with some of these leaders, but the Chechen government has garnered more investment from its fellow Muslim states in recent years as the republic struggles under Russia's economic recession.

Kadyrov has been acting further and further outside the Kremlin's bounds. In recent years, the Chechen leader and heavyweights from the Russian security services have been locked in a struggle for power and influence.

Adding to the Kremlin's concerns is the spread of ultraconservative sentiment in Chechnya, something Kadyrov has fostered. The Chechen president has historically used the republic's Muslim-majority religion to unify the state under his leadership. But Chechen authorities have continued to put more stringent rules in place under the auspices of Islamic law. At the end of March, Chechnya passed a bill allowing schoolgirls to wear hijabs in class, a practice outlawed by federal authorities. Since September 2016, schools in Chechnya have mandated that girls wear red headscarves as part of their uniform, a practice many Russian government authorities have criticized. Last year, reports surfaced that the Chechen Ministry of Culture had issued rules for weddings, including some forbidding brides from dancing, dictating conservative dress for female guests and preventing guests from trading dance partners or getting drunk. Police reportedly have monitored weddings across the republic to enforce the new guidelines. The previous year, Kadyrov condoned and encouraged a string of controversial marriages pairing older male officials with much younger women (if not girls). For the most part, Russian authorities have ignored Chechnya's heightened emphasis on enforcing more conservative social standards.

As for Moscow's delayed response to the region's reported brutality against homosexuals, Russian authorities themselves have cracked down on the Russian gay community. Such crackdowns have gained acceptance by most Russians, who see them as a way to guard the country's traditionalism. The Kremlin promotes those sentiments, which are influenced by the country's Russian Orthodox traditions. But that ideology may clash with rising ultraconservative Islamic sentiments in Chechnya.

Moreover, Russian pundits are increasingly pointing to Kadyrov's activities as defying Kremlin norms. Russian leaders want a stable and strong Chechnya. But they do not want the republic to act more independently or seek greater autonomy, nor do they want to see one whose conservative Islamism borders on radicalism.

The longer Kadyrov and his followers are able to chart a course of their own that flouts the Kremlin's authority, the harder it will be for Putin to rein the region's leader and population back in. The Russian president has already shown that he is willing to take on some of the country's most powerful elites, but challenging or containing Kadyrov could lead to a standoff with most of Chechnya's people, who support their longtime leader. When Putin first came to power, he guaranteed the Russian (and Chechen) people that he would bring Chechnya to heel and maintain its stability — and his control. With Putin facing challenges on all fronts (protests, economic troubles and international polarization to name a few), the time may not yet be ripe for him to confront the powerful Chechen leader. But as Kadyrov grows bolder, that contest will loom ever closer. 

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