Ramzan Kadyrov and his Russian critics have squabbled for the last two weeks. Most of those who criticized Kadyrov are either members of the Russian political opposition or rights activists who are also opposed to President Vladimir Putin. Kadyrov regards all opposition to the Russian president as pro-American and anti-Russian. Speaking to journalists in Grozny, on January 12, Kadyrov called the Russian opposition a “fifth column,” saying they are enemies of the country who should be “tried in court for their subversive activities” (Interfax, January 12).
Kadyrov made these controversial statements against the backdrop of massive criticism of his methods of governance. In particular, Kadyrov’s critics pointed to the practice of publicly shaming republican residents who criticize him on social media. In one case, Chechen TV showed a young Chechen man, Adam Dikaev, begging forgiveness in his underwear. The Chechen authorities had punished him for posting a video on Instagram criticizing Putin. Dikaev was shown on Chechen TV repeating that the Russian president was his “father, grandfather and everything” and that he admired Putin (Kavkazsky Uzel, December 21, 2015).
At around the same time, Chechen TV featured another “repentant” resident of the republic—a Chechen woman, Aishat Inaeva, who retracted her previous criticism of Kadyrov. Also during this period, rumors were spreading in the republic that the death of a Grozny State Technical University professor, Khizir Yezhiev, had involved violence (Ekhokavkaza.com, January 7). These events prompted the Russian opposition to launch a flash mob campaign—“Kadyrov [Is] the Disgrace [Pozor] of Russia.” In response, the Chechen authorities launched their own campaign—“Kadyrov [Is] Russia’s Pride [Gordost].” The Chechen authorities’ campaign culminated in a large rally in Grozny in support of Kadyrov (Novayagazeta.ru, January 19). The organizers of the rally labeled as enemies of Russia the deputy chairman of the opposition PARNAS party, Ilya Yashin; the leader of Grazhdanskoe Sodeistvie, Svetlana Gannushkina; the head of Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alekseyeva; the editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio, Aleksei Venediktov; as well as opposition leaders Garry Kasparov, Aleksei Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky; among others. In short, Chechen authorities put all the opposition activists who publicly spoke out against Putin on their list of enemies. Understandably, the opposition figures perceived this as a threat of physical reprisals against them (YouTube, January 18).
The activists and politicians targeted by the Chechen governor probably did not expect the Kremlin to demonstrably rebuff Kadyrov, but they certainly also did not expect that Putin would personally support him. While on a visit to Stavropol region, the Russian president stated that “Ramzan Kadyrov excels at coping with the task he is given” (Novayagazeta.ru, January 25). Thus, it appeared that Moscow weighed in on the side of Kadyrov in his brawl with the Russian opposition. However, the Russian TV channel Dozhd quoted a source close to the Kremlin as saying that the Russian presidential administration was unhappy with Kadyrov’s statements and the rally supporting him. According to the source, the conflict with the Russian opposition and the rally in Grozny were signals from Chechnya’s leadership telling Moscow not to cut federal subsidies to the republic (Tvrain.ru, January 26).
The Dozhd television report was unusual because it was unclear why the Kremlin used an anonymous source to communicate its discontent to Kadyrov (Ridus.ru, January 26). Dozhd is under constant pressure from the Kremlin, so it would be quite hard to imagine that the channel deliberately misinformed the public. In fact, it looked like someone deliberately tried to make the TV channel look like an unreliable source of information, and the Kremlin quickly denied the Dozhd report. “Concerning the activities of the governor of the Chechen Republic, the administration of the president has no questions for him,” said Kremlin administration head Sergei Ivanov (TASS, January 26). It was a clear signal from the Kremlin that it would not criticize Kadyrov’s actions.
Still, the standoff between Ramzan Kadyrov and the Russian opposition had some unexpected consequences. Chechen diasporas in Europe, starting with Chechens living in Austria, also staged protests against Kadyrov (YouTube, January 25). Austria is home to an estimated 24,000–30,000 Chechens: it is the second-largest Chechen diaspora in Europe, smaller only than the Chechen community in France. Chechens in Germany, Finland, and Norway also held protests (Openrussia.org, January 25). A demonstration against the policies of the Kremlin was also held in Kyiv, during which the speaker of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Refat Chubareva, along with Ukrainian and Georgian volunteers who had defended the Donbas region, declared solidarity with the Chechens. The rally was organized by a battalion of Chechens who have been fighting in the ranks of the Ukrainian army (YouTube, January 23).
Such public actions have not been characteristic of the Chechen diasporas in Europe, given that many Chechens have feared that Kadyrov’s government would pressure their relatives still living in the republic and thus have avoided public protests against the Chechen ruler’s policies. However, now that European Chechens have started protesting against Kadyrov, they are unlikely to stop any time soon. Likewise, it appears that the standoff between Kadyrov and the Russian opposition has only just begun.