Putin's Man in the Caucasus Kadyrov Struggles to Rebuild Chechnya -- And Stay Alive
Part 2: Killing Devils
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov speaks during a meeting in Gudermes. A portrait of his father, late Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov, is seen in the background.
Vacha Nassuchanov lives on the sunny side of the new republic. He is the mayor of Gudermes, President Kadyrov's hometown. The popular official, formerly the president's "security advisor," praises the new Chechnya as a place of harmony. "There are no problems here," he says, "the president decides everything."
Walking along Kadyrov Street, Nassuchanov heads for a jewelry shop, passing a gold-plated monument to the senior Kadyrov along the way. In the shop, a saleswoman shows him a ring set with large diamonds, which has a price-tag of 4,800 -- about 25 times the average monthly wage in Chechnya. An oil painting of the junior Kadyrov hangs on the wall.
On the other side of the street, a bearded Kadyrov guardsman opens the door of the Ramzan Republic Sports Club, revealing a 20-foot-tall poster of the president. Six photos of the president line the walls of the lobby.
In the spotlessly clean workout room, muscular young men climb into the boxing ring. They all wear T-shirts with a portrait of the same man: Ramzan. In a corner of the workout room hangs a photo of a faintly smiling Putin. It's almost as if the man who, as prime minister, dispatched Russian troops to the rebellious province in 1999, were indulgently observing the bizarre goings-on in the new republic.
Fear and Fascination
Like some gangland boss, Ramzan Kadyrov evokes fear and fascination in equal measure among his countrymen. Chechens, including government employees, are exceedingly cautious about voicing any criticism of the provincial dictator and the cult surrounding the father and son.
For years, the president's 19,000-strong security forces, known as "kadyrovtsy," kidnapped, tortured and killed countless fellow Chechens. In 2005, when he was still deputy prime minister, Kadyrov told the pro-Kremlin paper Komsomolskaya Pravda that his "hobby" was "killing devils" -- a reference to Islamic underground fighters battling for Chechen independence. The human rights organization Memorial estimates that about 3,500 residents of Chechnya have "disappeared" since 1999, dragged off by Russian occupiers or the kadyrovtsy.
Kadyrov himself wears a star-shaped "Hero of Russia" medal proudly pinned to his chest. He has around-the-clock bodyguards to protect him against survivors seeking to avenge their murdered family members. He surrounds himself with muscular men dressed in black, drives a Hummer SUV and, in his public appearances, behaves as if he were the epitome of exuberant joie de vivre. He tosses around 1,000 ruble notes (about 30) at a beauty contest in Grozny or has five camels imported and slaughtered for a feast in his home village.
A Dangerous Undertaking
Kadyrov, who has a boyish smile, glosses over the fact that being a Chechen president is a dangerous undertaking. Since 1996, four of the region's five presidents have died a violent death. The only one who left office alive was Kadyrov's predecessor, Alu Alkhanov -- Kadyrov, prime minister at the time, forced him to resign.
The kadyrovtsy deal harshly with armed separatists, who are still operating, especially in the mountains of southern Chechnya. Those who are captured and survive the electroshocks and beatings during their interrogations often end up in IK 2, a prison in Chernokosovo, 50 kilometers (31 miles) northwest of Grozny. Moscow has transformed the facility into a model prison. Colonel Igor Plemedyale, a press spokesman of the Russian justice ministry, insists that Chernokosovo is a prison "at the European level."
In the cafeteria, where the air is filled with the sharp odor of cleaning products, prisoners in blue drill uniforms eat a thin cabbage soup. Lomali Berzanov, 25, is being held in a cell with nine metal beds in a two-story cellblock painted in pastel colors. A graduate of a computer school in Grozny, he was sentenced in 2005 to 10 years in prison for his membership in an "illegal armed formation" -- Moscow's code for armed resistance. When the prisoners walk from the prison gate to their cells, they pass a slogan painted on the wall that reads: "Honest work is the way home."
Those militant Chechens who are not convinced that work makes you free in Kadyrov's empire have gathered around Doku Umarov, a warlord who has also declared himself president of Chechnya. Umarov has proclaimed a "holy war" against the "Russian occupiers" and local "traitors."
Russian officials estimate that his armed fighters number 300 to 800 men, many of them in their early 20s. Week after week, partisan groups blow up the vehicles of Russian officials and the kadyrovtsy or open fire on military installations. The rebels can depend on the support of tens of thousands of sympathizers and a broad-based separatist subculture driven by the thirst for revenge.