Little to celebrate in Kadyrov’s Chechnya
One of the most popular items pinging back and forth across the internet is the infamous video report on the glitzy extravaganza sponsored by the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, to celebrate both his birthday and the unveiling of a series of lavish new buildings in the Chechen capital, Grozny. What made the spectacle especially notable was the presence of several celebrities from the world’s great democracies, including American actress Hilary Swank and the Belgian-born Hollywood action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme. In her words of appreciation, Swank said she “could feel the spirit of the people, and everyone was so happy.” “Happy birthday, Mr. President,” she added.
Swank has come to regret her words and her appearance at Kadyrov’s garish celebration. The star of Million Dollar Baby has been pilloried by journalists and human rights organizations. She has issued apologies, and claimed ignorance of Kadyrov’s ugly record of repression. In fact, the evidence suggests that she was forewarned of the dangers of appearing at Kadyrov’s party. The Human Rights Foundation apparently wrote to her weeks before the event to express its concern and to remind her, if she didn’t already know, about the history of Kadyrov’s rule in Chechnya. By any standard, it is a damning history, and one easily accessed through a cursory search of the internet.
First, there’s the killing. The number of anti-Kadyrov Chechens who have been murdered abroad continues to grow. Just this September, three Chechens were murdered in broad daylight in Istanbul. The assassinations bring the number of Chechens killed in that Turkish city to six in three years. Indeed, Chechnya is unusual today for the number of regime critics who have been assassinated in foreign locales, including Austria and Dubai. The victims include human rights activists and journalists as well as opposition personalities and defectors. Meanwhile, disappearances and murders within Chechnya have continued apace. Among the most prominent victims was human rights worker Natalya Estemirova, who in 2009 was abducted from her apartment in Grozny and was later found dead in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia.
Then there’s the endemic poverty of the place. Most Chechens are deeply impoverished. Unemployment in parts of the North Caucasus is as high as 55 percent, according to the North Caucasus Federal District administration. Some independent experts put the figure at more than 80 percent. (Unemployment stands at 85 percent, says Lyoma Turpalov, editor of Groznensky Rabochy, an independent weekly newspaper.)
Even as he leads a life of personal excess, Kadyrov has imposed his own interpretation of Islamic law in Chechnya. The “virtue campaign” he initiated demands that women comply with a strict dress code when in public. This has led to harassment and physical attacks; in June 2010, a series of paintball shootings from moving vehicles targeted women without headscarves in the streets of Grozny. One young girl lost an eye. The culprits were never found.
The Kadyrov government uses government workers as a source of free labor. For example, schoolteachers are regularly forced to participate in Soviet-style “voluntary” community service activities, such as working in a soccer stadium in preparation for its inauguration.
There’s a growing cult of personality, or indeed three personalities: Ramzan Kadyrov; his late father Akhmad Kadyrov, who was president of Chechnya until he was killed in a 2004 bombing; and Vladimir Putin. Grozny’s main street is now called Putin Avenue. Images of both Kadyrovs and Putin adorn almost every building in the capital.
There are Kadyrov’s very expensive hobbies. He owns a stable of racehorses based in Dubai, and he enters them in some of the world’s most prestigious competitions—at Ascot, for example. In Australia, Senator Bob Brown of the Green Party said that hosting Kadyrov’s racehorses in the Melbourne Cup marked “the lowest point of Australia’s sporting history.” More recently, on October 7, Kadyrov’s horse Sweet Ducky was scratched from an allowance race at the famous Keeneland course in Kentucky because state racing officials asked that Kadyrov appear before its license review committee after the U.S. State Department raised questions about his human rights record.
In January Kadyrov hired the legendary Dutch soccer star Ruud Gullit for a reported seven-figure salary to coach Terek Grozny, the local Premier League club of which Kadyrov is president. In March, the Chechen leader invited an all-star team of Brazilian World Cup winners from 1994 and 2002—including Romario, Bebeto, Cafu, Dunga and Denilson—to play an exhibition match in Grozny. In May, he brought in another team of all-stars, including the former player and Argentina national coach Diego Maradona, to play a match against a Kadyrov team. Kadyrov has evaded questions about the funding for his various hobbies, including soccer. But the Chechen government said the game with the international all-stars was partially sponsored by Dagmara Trading, a Swiss-based firm owned by secretive Chechen businessman Bulat Chagayev, a close associate of Kadyrov’s.
In fact, of course, the principal source of funds for the shining new Chechnya is Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. Moscow has financed more than 90 percent of Chechnya’s budget, according to Russia’s Finance Ministry. But the subsidies are not publicly accounted for. According to official records, Kadyrov’s personal income in 2010 amounted to 4 million rubles ($131,000), and he lives in a modest three-room apartment in Grozny. Yet he somehow managed to ship two of his horses (Mourilyan and Bankable) to Melbourne at a reported six-figure cost, and the British violinist Vanessa-Mae was paid a reported $500,000 to perform at the Grozny birthday party. Kadyrov is also said to have a fleet of luxury cars, a private zoo, a $1 million watch, and gold-plated weapons.
While Kadyrov has formally forbidden celebrations of his birthday, since he is ostensibly opposed to any cult of personality, he has very cleverly scheduled national celebrations to coincide with the anniversary. Two years ago, Grozny City Day was conveniently shifted to the same day as Kadyrov’s birthday. This year, Kadyrov timed the formal unveiling of a number of large facilities—the republic’s first complex of skyscrapers, a five-star hotel, a business center complete with helipad, a hospital, and the restored Akhmad Kadyrov Avenue—to coincide with his 35th birthday.
Ramzan Kadyrov—in many ways the end product of nearly two decades of violence, lawlessness, and misguided Kremlin policies in Chechnya—is a cruel man with huge appetites who, through the largesse of his Russian benefactors, presides over one of the world’s largest Potemkin villages. The decision of Hilary Swank and others to legitimize his rule by participating in his party shouldn’t even have been a close call. The New Grozny affair was an obscenity, and those who shared the stage with Kadyrov deserve every brickbat that has been tossed at them.