MOSCOW, Russia—On Tuesday, the capital of Chechnya celebrated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s birthday, something not done elsewhere in Russia: More than 100,000 young Chechens dressed in the colors of Russian and Chechen national flags marched down the main avenues of Grozny. And Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the Russian Federal Republic of Chechnya, led the march in Putin’s honor.
Unfortunately, despite the extravagance of the parades, Putin was not there to witness the festivities. He had chosen to spend the day deep in the Siberian taiga, hundreds of miles from the nearest village and thousands away from Grozny. But the Putin spirit can be felt everywhere in a capital that was devastated by two wars for independence in the 1990s and early in the last decade. In those days jihadists around the world embraced the cause of the Muslim rebels, and the Russian military struck back against the insurgents with devastating and often indiscriminate firepower. Large areas of Grozny were leveled.
These days, under Kadyrov’s leadership Chechnya traditionally gives Putin his biggest margin of victory in any Russian republic on Election Day. In 2012 Chechen authorities reported turnout at 99.55 percent. In an interview a few years ago, Kadyrov told me that he loved Putin, “very much, as a man could love a man.” And Kadyrov said he was grateful to Putin for many reasons. Perhaps first among them, Putin received Kadyrov in the Kremlin on the same day Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya at the time, was assassinated in Grozny in May 2004. On the following day Putin appointed the then-28-year-old Ramzan to be the first vice prime minister of Chechnya.
In the past decade Kadyrov has often been criticized for his authoritarian rule, human rights violations, and even for ordering the murder of a prominent journalist and human right defender, Natalya Estemirova. But Chechens praise Kadyrov for reducing the number of terrorist attacks, rebuilding ruins, and bringing billions of rubles subsidized by the Russian state to Chechnya. Many in the neighboring North Caucasus republics say they envy Chechnya its strong leader. Kadyrov told me, “As long as Putin backs me up, I can do everything—Allahu akbar!”
Today the capital of Chechnya, with its newly built skyscrapers, concert halls, trade centers, and mosques, would amaze anybody who remembers how it looked after years of war. The Kremlin poured billions of dollars into rebuilding the ruined cities of Chechnya and reinforcing Kadyrov’s police to win an uneasy peace in that erstwhile Islamist war against the Russian state.
But the shadow of new conflicts—new terror if not new insurgencies—is starting to darken the scene in Chechnya. And while Kadyrov has many enemies, among the most fearsome are those now honing their skills as fighters and commanders with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Kadyrov had organized another big party last weekend, even before the Putin birthday bash. He was marking his own birthday (he’s still not 40) and a holiday known as City Day in Grozny. Expensive soirées and glamorous concerts by international and Russian pop stars were planned. Kadyrov is known for in flying celebrities from Hollywood and around the world.
Sunday morning the city looked festive. It was decorated with colorful flags. Crowds of schoolchildren and parents dressed for the occasion poured into a concert hall in the afternoon. At about 5 p.m., police stopped a suspicious looking young man outside metal detectors by the entrance to the hall. Just then Grozny was shaken by a powerful blast, reminiscent of the explosions of the past.
The day after the suicide bomber attacked his capital, Kadyrov posted on Instagram about his plan to look for “enemies of Islam everywhere, constantly, not allowing even their spirits to visit Chechnya.” He promised “hell” as punishment for those who had anything to do with the attack, which killed five people and wounded 12 others.
Kadyrov also published a video of himself praying on his knees at Grozny’s central mosque. In it the head of the republic was wearing camouflaged pants and a Muslim uniform coat, the kind Kadyrov wife’s Muslim fashion firm designs for him.
Terrorists had planned the attack in advance, “as a threat addressed both to Kadyrov and Putin,” Grigory Shvedov, editor of the Internet agency Caucasian Knot, and an expert on the North Caucasus, told The Daily Beast in an interview on Monday. And while no direct connection has been established, Sunday’s attack took place soon after one of the key leaders of ISIS, Abu Omar, offered to pay a $5 million reward for Kadyrov’s assassination.
By Caucasian Knot’s count, since 2000 Russia has seen 81 attacks by 124 suicide bombers, killing 1,216 people and injuring 3,263 others. Sunday’s explosion was the first terror attack in Grozny this year.
“Of the 365 days in a year, yesterday was the most difficult day to carry out a terrorist attack on Grozny,” Shvedov said. “Obviously, the emir who ordered the attack meant it to happen on the birthday of Kadyrov, whom Muslims waging jihad in the Caucasian Emirate and ISIS blame for suppressing Islam in the North Caucasus and supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria.”
Kadyrov offers an alternative, pro-Russian Islam, backed by the Russian state, including enforcing rules on headscarves for women and girls in schools and sponsoring mosque construction. In today’s Chechnya, Kadyrov has done everything possible to win over young men and make Vladimir Putin more popular than ISIS and its ideas.