On June 12, some of the most astonishing news in recent years arrived from Chechnya: the previously ubiquitous portraits of Ramzan Kadyrov had reportedly vanished from the streets of Grozny and other Chechen towns and villages. Until a few days ago, enormous images of the current ruler of Chechnya covered the facades of all government offices, schools and many other buildings in the republic. Entrances into villages and towns were also decorated with portraits of Kadyrov. The images of the Moscow-backed Chechen leader were reportedly removed in a single day.
A press conference with Russian journalists on May 27 was something of a first for Kadyrov; he was grilled on several ticklish questions and his words sparked multiple scandals. Answering one of the journalists on the omnipresence of his portraits in the streets, he promised to remove all of them. Dozens of units of machinery were employed to remove hundreds of portraits of Kadyrov throughout the republic. An anonymous leader of a local civil organization told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website: “Portraits of Ramzan, with standard inscriptions such as ‘Thank You For Grozny!’, ‘Thank You For Gudermes!’, ‘Thank You For The District!’, ‘We Believe And Support!’, and so on, were practically everywhere and produced nothing apart from anger and ridicule among the public. Previously, Kadyrov also used to express his disapproval of the proliferation of his images in Chechnya, but lower-rank bureaucrats in the Chechen government successfully ignored his admonitions” (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/225572/).
The removal of the Kadyrov portraits coincided with a serious scandal in the Russian media connected to Chechnya. On May 29, the deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian business TV channel RBK, Alexander Reut, said in a TV interview that he and his TV crew had experienced some disconcerting moments during conversations with people in Grozny. Most shockingly, Reut said: “After a long pleasant talk with the head of Chechen Republic we came out and saw women who cut grass and put it into a Russian flag. So they carried around trash in the Russian flag, when Chechen flags were waving all around them” (https://www.rosbalt.ru/video/2013/05/29/1134799.html). The Chechen government hastily reacted with a statement accusing RBK TV channel of a “provocation.” According to the Chechen officials, the RBK TV crew had asked a group of janitors to carry grass, saying that it was needed for a movie, and had paid them to do it (https://chechnya.gov.ru/page.php?r=126HYPERLINK; https://chechnya.gov.ru/page.php?r=126&id=13132"&HYPERLINK; https://chechnya.gov.ru/page.php?r=126&id=13132"id=13132).
On June 12, Russia’s independence day, obsequious gestures toward Moscow orchestrated by the Chechen authorities took an especially grotesque form. News agencies reported that about 115,000 people gathered in Grozny to sing Russia’s national anthem, and that 6,000 people dressed white, red and blue, formed a giant Russian flag (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/225561/). Subsequently, Grozny residents who participated in this public show started to report that no more than 20,000 people had gathered for the celebrations and that most of them participated after being threatened with being fired from their jobs. “Participants in the gathering did not sing Russia’s anthem—most of them do not probably even know the words,” a Grozny resident who gave his name as Israil told Kavkazsky Uzel. “A recording of the anthem was played and the people on the square simply sang along or pretended they did” (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/225597/).
During the same May 27 press conference, Kadyrov was caught in another scandal. During a soccer game in Grozny in April between the Chechen Terek team’s youth team and Amkar, a team from the Perm region, the referee, Musa Kadyrov, knocked an Amkar player, Ilya Krichmar, to the ground and repeatedly hit him. The referee later asserted that the player had provoked and insulted him throughout the game, something the player emphatically denied. The Russian soccer association disqualified the referee for life, but he was offered a position in one of Grozny’s boxing clubs. Asked by a journalist about the incident, Ramzan Kadyrov answered: “He [the referee] broke the law, but he did everything correctly. I would probably have killed him [the player] for such an insult. This would have been breaking the law and I would have been sentenced to a prison term. But that is how our traditions and customs work” (https://football.sport-express.ru/reviews/31811/).
Needless to say, Kadyrov’s comments caused a public uproar, something that he probably was forced to react to in one way or another. The removal of his portraits from the streets is probably the single greatest victory for Russian public opinion in Chechnya in recent times. The victory is, of course, symbolic in nature and clearly partial: for example, portraits of Ramzan Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov, and of Vladimir Putin remain in Chechnya’s streets intact. Still, Ramzan Kadyrov may have figured out that in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Sochi, all sporting events are receiving extra attention from the Russian government, and from President Putin above all, which means the Chechen leader has to mitigate his outbursts of aggression and display extra loyalty to Moscow.