Putin's predicament: Harrowing reports of anti-gay violence in Chechnya have Russia's leader in a tough spot

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is lying about anti-gay brutality. Putin may not care — but he hates bad press

Published April 23, 2017 10:00AM (EDT)

Ramzan Kadyrov; Vladimir Putin   (AP/Musa Sadulayev/Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)
Ramzan Kadyrov; Vladimir Putin (AP/Musa Sadulayev/Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has publicly denied reports that gay men have been kidnapped and tortured — in some cases even killed — in the semi-autonomous Russian region. These reports have percolated around the world for several weeks, and form the basis for a major investigative report published Friday in the New York Times.

Kadyrov's denials are not surprising. Nor is it surprising that Russian President Vladimir Putin, for now, seems to be relatively unfazed by those reports.

Meeting with Putin in Moscow this week, the Chechen leader publicly denied any anti-gay purge. In the video, sitting opposite Putin, a visibly embarrassed Kadyrov is unable even to say the word “gay.” Instead he refers simply to “provocative articles about the Republic of Chechnya.”

Putin, who is unlikely to have needed the clarification, asks Kadyrov to specify “which articles” exactly he is referring to. Kadyrov still can’t bring himself to say the word. His body language becomes immediately awkward. He shifts around in his chair and takes a deep breath. After beating around the topic for another few seconds, he admits that the subject is “even uncomfortable to talk about” — before continuing to describe the reports of detentions and killings without using the word “gay.”

To fully appreciate how improbable it is that Kadyrov is telling the truth, a little background information is necessary.

Ramzan Kadyrov and his father, Akhmad, fought alongside each other for Chechen separatism in the '90s, against the Russian regime led by Boris Yeltsin. During the second Chechen war — with Russia by this time under Putin’s rule — both Kadyrovs had switched sides. Akhmad was installed as president of the republic, but was assassinated in 2004. Power was then handed to the younger Kadyrov, who remains in place today.

Putin’s macho-man persona has nothing on the cringeworthy personality cult that Kadyrov has created for himself. He has 2.6 million followers on Instagram, where he has been known to post pictures of himself in various poses of heroism and valor. In 2016, Kadyrov chose a new assistant for himself through a TV show styled after "The Apprentice." But those are the more appealing things about him.

Kadyrov, a constant thorn in Putin’s side, has also promoted certain aspects of fundamentalist Islam. He has shown support for polygamy and honor killings, denouncing slain women as people of “loose morals.” He was a guest at the wedding of a teenage girl forced to marry a police chief three times her age — despite the fact that forced and underage marriages are prohibited by Russian law.

It is hardly far-fetched, then, to assume Kadyrov would turn a blind eye to the roundup and torture of gay men, if not actively support it. Yet the Kremlin appears to be accepting — publicly, at least — his assurances that nothing of the sort has been happening. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a BBC reporter the day before the meeting with Kadyrov that there had been no confirmation of such events and there was no reason to doubt Kadyrov’s story.

In possibly the worst ever attempt at a denial, Kadyrov’s own spokesperson said the reports could not be true because gay people “just don’t exist” in Chechnya. If there were “such people” in Chechnya, he said, law enforcement wouldn’t need to round them up because their relatives would have already “sent them somewhere from which there is no returning.”

These reports put Putin in an odd position: Turn a blind eye to growing religious fundamentalism and disregard for Russian law — or make a public show of coming to the defense of the LGBT community. Neither option is particularly appealing to the Russian leader.

It’s easy to think this is a simple case of Putin choosing to ignore the reports out of antipathy toward gay people — but while LGBT rights certainly aren’t top of his agenda, there’s more to the Kremlin’s reluctance to condemn Kadyrov.

Chechnya may be a region within the Russian Federation, but it is also a region where Russian law often comes second to radical Islamic tradition. Kadyrov, who commands an army of 20,000 loyal men, has managed to carve out a state within a state in Chechnya, running the place like his own personal kingdom. During another meeting between Putin and Kadyrov in 2016, Putin warned him: “You must do everything to ensure that Russian law in all spheres of life is observed. I want to underline, in all spheres of life.”

Undeterred by that warning, Kadyrov knows he is on a loose leash. So loose, in fact, that he and his cronies are strongly suspected of being behind the murder of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in Moscow last year.

Two Chechen men linked to Kadyrov are on trial for Nemtsov’s assassination. Both men confessed to the murder, claiming that Nemtsov had made comments they didn’t like about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. They later said they had been forced to confess.

Independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta — the same paper that reported on the alleged gay crackdown — published videos of the two men's confessions after they changed their stories. The newspaper believes the trail leads back to Kadyrov, and that Nemtsov’s death was hugely shocking to Putin. At that time, many wondered if Kadyrov would continue to enjoy support from the Kremlin. He got the cold shoulder for a while, but there was no public condemnation by the Russian government and suspicions of his involvement in the murder were swept under the carpet.

Why? After two brutal wars, stability in Chechnya is of the utmost importance for the Kremlin.

Despite Kadyrov’s brand of religious fundamentalism and the distaste for it in Moscow, he remains the leader of Chechnya for a reason. During his reign, he has managed to stamp out much of the remnants of the separatist insurgency and retain tight control of the republic. But with ISIS ideology taking hold in the region (Putin estimates that up to 7,000 people from Russia and the former Soviet states have joined the terror group), that stability has never been more important.

Kadyrov remains vehemently anti-ISIS and pro-Putin — and a pro-Moscow Islamic Chechnya is the best the Kremlin can hope for. In one video posted online, Kadyrov publicly shamed a group of young men who had voiced support for ISIS ideology on social media. He told the youths that ISIS sought out “weak-minded” men to join their ranks and confirmed that there is “no place for those who would even look in the direction of ISIS” in Chechnya.

This is the context in which the Kremlin must now deal with the new allegations of anti-gay kidnapping and torture in Chechnya. Putin's government will likely excuse almost anything to maintain stability in a highly volatile region. There are certainly people who see that as almost understandable, given Chechnya’s unique circumstances -- although most of those people are the same ones who deny there's any truth to the allegations at all. To others, the Kremlin’s refusal to take this seriously simply looks like tacit, if reluctant, approval for abuse and murder.

Putin is afraid to rock the boat by challenging Kadyrov. He continues to support him publicly, but underneath that support appears to be a bubbling anger. Many have begun to comment on the growing tension between the two men as Kadyrov continues to test Moscow’s boundaries — and Russia watchers continue to wonder how far he will have to go before Putin has had enough.

As evidence mounts to contradict Kadyrov’s denials of an anti-gay crackdown, the Kremlin has stayed mostly quiet on the issue, downplaying the reports when asked about them directly. Russian authorities said they would investigate the claims if victims were to come forward, but the Guardian has reported that the victims they spoke to were understandably too afraid to speak out without guarantees of safety.

Journalists at Novaya Gazeta are also worried. Some Muslim clerics in Chechnya have called for “retribution” against the newspaper. The journalist who broke the story, Elena Milashina, has gone into hiding. With a loose cannon like Kadyrov setting his sights on her, Milashina has good reason to worry.

The Guardian also reported that some in the Kremlin are alarmed by the reports and are now trying to independently investigate the allegations. Short of a strong and clear personal intervention from Putin, it’s unlikely that they’ll get very far.

By Danielle Ryan

Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance journalist, writing mostly on geopolitics and media. She is based in Budapest, but has also lived in the U.S., Germany and Russia. Follow her on Twitter.

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