Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has become a major player in Russian politics. Is he out of control? Here's everything you need to know:
Who is Kadyrov?
Ramzan Kadyrov, 39, is the de facto dictator of the mostly Muslim Russian province of Chechnya. A burly, bearded man with a passion for boxing, Islam, and flattering Instagram photos of himself, he is charismatic and ruthless. Kadyrov rules Chechnya with an iron fist, and those who have endured his prisons say he likes to personally deliver electric shocks to prisoners. He also commands a fiercely loyal, 30,000-strong private army that is said to be the best-trained force in Russia. After two devastating separatist wars against Russian forces that killed hundreds of thousands of Chechens, the province was broken and battered when the Kadyrov clan took over. Kadyrov has brought peace and stability — for those who don't cross him. He places Islamic sharia law over Russian law and disdains democracy altogether. "We do not have an opposition," Kadyrov says. "Such a system was invented to undermine authority." In response to growing Russian criticism of his power, Kadyrov last week offered to step down — an offer nearly everyone believes is a ploy.
How did he come to power?
Russian President Vladimir Putin personally anointed him. Kadyrov's father, Akhmad Kadyrov, was a mufti who declared jihad against Russia in 1995, but was later co-opted by Putin and installed as Chechen president. The elder Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004, and when Ramzan eventually took his place, Putin himself met with Kadyrov to negotiate the terms of their relationship. Because Kadyrov firmly controls a Muslim-majority province that gave Putin nightmares in the past, he enjoys a degree of independence that Putin would not tolerate in any other Russian leader. Kadyrov claims to be fanatically loyal to Putin, and Putin has showered him with awards, including the Hero of Russia star, the Order of Courage, and the Order for Service to the Homeland. "All those who criticize Putin are subhumans, and are my personal enemies," Kadyrov told Newsweek. "As long as Putin supports me, I can do anything." When agents of the national intelligence agency, the FSB, arrested several Kadyrov bodyguards accused of torturing a Moscow man in 2013, the bodyguards were quickly freed without a trial and the lead investigator was fired.
Does Kadyrov kill opponents?
There's no direct proof of that, but people who cross him tend to end up dead. Russia's most famous investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, who had reported on torture, kidnappings, and murders by Kadyrov's forces, was slain inside her Moscow apartment building in 2006. Natalia Estemirova, a leading activist Kadyrov named to run a human rights council in the Chechen capital of Grozny, was killed outside her apartment in 2009 after she took her job too seriously and exposed abuses by Chechen security. Many Russians believe Kadyrov was also behind the brazen assassination, right outside the gates of the Kremlin, of top Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Putin was "obviously stunned" by that killing, former Kremlin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky told The New Yorker. "If you can do something like this just outside Spassky Gate, then maybe you could do this inside Spassky Gate as well" — that is, in the Kremlin itself.
How did the government react?
The FSB arrested five Chechens, including a deputy commander in Kadyrov's forces. Kadyrov immediately defended the man, praising him on Instagram as "a true patriot." Yet the real mastermind, the Russian press said, was Ruslan Geremeyev, a higher-level Chechen commander. Russian investigators wanted to indict him but were forbidden to by their superiors, presumably because Putin wouldn't permit it. Many Russians now think that Putin has lost control of his Chechen attack dog.
Why do they think that?
Since the Nemtsov murder, Kadyrov has threatened more Russian opposition figures, calling them "enemies of the people and traitors" who should be "put on trial, with maximum severity, for sabotage." Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who is now a key opposition leader, called this statement Stalinist. Shortly after that, Kadyrov posted on Instagram a video of Kasyanov and another activist walking together in Strasbourg, France. The video appears to have been taken through the scope of a rifle, with crosshairs over the two men. The post produced an outcry in the Russian press. "Not a bit embarrassed by his role in the murder of Nemtsov, Kadyrov openly offers Putin his services in the further physical liquidation of the undesirable," Russian political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky tweeted.
Can Kadyrov be stopped?
The Russian opposition, such as it is, is calling for his ouster. Opposition politician Ilya Yashin presented a damning report last week accusing Kadyrov — a frequent visitor to Moscow — of setting his sights beyond Chechnya, and he explicitly asked Putin to remove him. "In recent years, Kadyrov's fighters have become active in Moscow," Yashin said. "While they see their main task as defending their boss' regime in Chechnya, they are beginning to see the rest of Russia as potential loot." Right after the report came out, Kadyrov announced he was ready to step down as Chechen president if Putin wanted — an offer that may force the Russian president to publicly renew his support of him. "So now the ball is in the Kremlin's court," says analyst Brian Whitmore of RFE/RL. "Reappointing Kadyrov will only embolden him. But not reappointing him risks a new round of conflict in the North Caucasus." For Putin, both options come with real risk.
Chechens in ISIS
Thousands of Chechen jihadists are fighting for ISIS in Syria. There are so many Chechens in ISIS-controlled territory, in fact, that there are now special schools for Chechen children, as well as Russian-language services. Many of the Chechen fighters fled their native land because of Kadyrov's oppressive rule. "Chechens often go to live in the Islamic State, and not only to fight," said Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina. "It's Kadyrov they are fleeing from." Russian and Chechen authorities both fear that these fighters could return home to launch attacks. "I have many thousands following me now, and I'll get more," said Omar al-Shishani ("Omar the Chechen"), a top ISIS commander. "We'll have our revenge against Russia."