MOSCOW — Once again Chechnya and its authoritarian leader Ramzan Kadyrov are making unsavory news. On a recent afternoon, a group of policemen providing security during final exams at School #2 in the Chechen village of Zakan-Yurt thrashed and humiliated an 11th-grader named Adlan Astemirov.
The boy’s mother, Zhanna Bibulatova, posted a letter to Kadyrov on WhatsApp and gave interviews to Moscow journalists, describing the way the cops smashed her son’s nose. She claimed that when other schoolboys ran over to help their friend, the cops threatened them with their weapons.
“Adlan has a broken nose and a fractured jaw,” wrote Bibulatova, and then she asked the question that really hit a nerve. “Why should we live in fear among our own people?”
It’s just a small incident. There are certainly much greater allegations made against Kadyrov’s cronies, including information they were involved in the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov last February just outside the walls of the Kremlin. But the schoolboy beating is part of a broad pattern of arrogance and abuse that has spawned growing discontent, and not only on the streets of Chechnya, but in the heart of the President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
“All of the Russian law enforcement agencies, including the FSB, the Investigative Department and the MVD agree that Kadyrov should be replaced—there is solid consensus on that,” says Moscow-based Kremlinologist Stanislav Belkovsky. He contends the Kremlin does not approve of the illegal actions taken in Chechnya and often criticizes Kadyrov and his men for their abuses, which include burning private property, unlawful threats, abductions, and violence.
“But Putin’s management style is conservative,” says Belkovsky, and one of his points of pride was bringing to an end the savage wars in Chechnya, with Kadyrov taking point as the region’s strongman. Putin “does not want to dismiss the Chechen leader because the name ‘Kadyrov’ itself has become a symbol of Russia’s reconciliation with Chechnya.”
In the schoolboy incident, Kadyrov did not punish his police for violations, of course. Local journalists told The Daily Beast that Chechnya’s leadership blamed the boy for the scandal (and even suggested Ukrainian secret agents might be involved). Anybody but the officials.
“We came to the village to speak with Astemirov [the boy] this morning, but his relatives told us that he was at a police station,” a lawyer from Joint Mobile Group (JMG) told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
And meanwhile the JMG is having plenty of problems of its own. Since 2009 lawyers from JMG and the Committee Against Torture have been coming from all over Russia to defend human rights in Chechnya. But on Wednesday, the Chechen leadership organized a street protest in the capital, Grozny, against such non-Chechen human-rights defenders.
Hundreds of people cheered and applauded while a man wearing a mask broke a security camera on the balcony of JMG’s office.
The head of the Committee Against Torture, Igor Kaliapin, whose car was destroyed by the angry mob in Grozny, said the only way left for JMG lawyers to work in Chechnya would be from a tank rented from the Ministry of Defense.
Novaya Gazeta reporter Elena Milashina, one of a few Russian journalists covering news in Chechnya, wrote on her Facebook page:
“The JMG office in Grozny has been destroyed for the second time in the last half year. It is not Kadyrov who is responsible for that but Putin, Kolooltsev, Bastrykin and Chaika,” Milashina wrote, rattling off the names of the heads of Russia’s main law enforcement institutions.
“There is no red line for Kadyrov,” Gregory Shvedov, the Russian editor in chief of the Internet news agency Caucasian Knot, told The Daily Beast. “He knows he will not be punished even for police beating students; he was not punished for ordering his forces to shoot to kill Russian law enforcement agents—such words would have immediately cost any Russian general at least one star on his epaulettes.”
Yet the throne under Kadyrov “is seriously shaken this time,” said Shvedov.
On Monday another publication, the well-respected Kommersant newspaper, wrote about corruption directly connected with Kadyrov’s name. The report presented detailed analyses of Kadyrov’s feudal system of economy based on kickbacks from businesses, and even state employees, to a non-transparent Akhmat-haji Kadyrov Charitable Fund, named after Kadyrov’s assassinated father.
“There are no signs of concern in the Russian Federation government about non-transparency in the system of distributing financial recourses in Chechnya,” the report said. “Money comes to the fund from everywhere,” the report said, including local businesses; every state employee kicked 10 percent of his or her income to the fund on a “volunteer-forceful basis.”
Last year the fund, which for about a decade did not open its files to Russia’s Ministry of Justice, accumulated $3.3 billion—a lot of shadow money in a republic that received $378 billion of donations from the federal budget.
If the Kremlin is indeed turning against Kadyrov, one might wonder what was the turning point. Only last summer, Russians on the Internet recognized the Chechen leader as the most popular governor in the country. Kadyrov’s Instagram account, which has 1 million followers, greets visitors with a line: “Allah is great!!!” Did the chain of bad news begin when terrorists attacked the center of Grozny last December, and killed 14 policemen?
Many have argued that the Boris Nemtsov murder was the turning point for key Russian officials.
On Sunday another popular newspaper, mk.ru, reported video taken in Moscow’s airport showed all suspects involved in the assassination of the Russian politician, including the key figures Zaur Dadayev and Ruslan Geremeyev, both officers of the Chechen republic, as well as a new suspect on the case, Ruslan Mukhadinov. Experts in Moscow believe the fact that Russian law enforcement is investigating Kadyrov’s senior policemen must be humiliating for the Chechen leader.
To demonstrate loyalty to his men, Kadyrov publicly stated that one of the murder suspects, Dadayev, was “a deeply religious man, and… was named a hero of the Russian Federation.” According to Caucasian Knot, one of the suspects, police officer Geremeyev, has left the country. So far investigators have not had a chance to question Mukhadinov, either.
Meanwhile, the public discussion continues to boil after a radio host, Sergey Dorenko, opened with a question: “Did Kadyrov cross the line?”
“The best proof that the Kremlin’s running out of patience is that all the materials about Nemtsov’s investigation leaked to the press. That never happened before Nemtsov’s murder,” Belkovsky told The Daily Beast.