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COLUMN ONE

Chechen tiger without a chain

President Kadyrov has silenced dissent and pacified the republic. His critics are hard to find, because they have a habit of disappearing.

June 17, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

GUDERMES, RUSSIA — 'I'm going to make them scream."

The president of Chechnya looks out at the menagerie of birds, floating on the murky man-made lake in his backyard: black swans, pelicans and ducks. Ostriches roam the opposite bank. Deep grunts of laughter shake his thick chest, jolting his barrel arms. Then Ramzan Kadyrov stops laughing. "Bring me the tiger!" he barks to his camouflage-clad servants. "Bring me bread!"

Two former guerrilla fighters wrestle a chained tiger down the muddy slope. The tiger rears up on its hind legs, fangs bared, and swats at the guards with splayed paws. They yell and beat the tiger about the head until the animal is low to the ground. Meanwhile, Kadyrov is tossing chunks of bread into the water for his fancy birds, imported here from all corners of the Earth. He hopes to draw them close enough to shore to get scared by the tiger. He still wants to hear them scream.

Kadyrov has been the president of Chechnya for a year; he was appointed by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin shortly after his 30th birthday made him old enough to hold the job legally. He inherited his power from his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, a Muslim cleric and separatist leader who cut a deal with Moscow after a blood-drenched war and emerged as Chechnya's president, only to be assassinated.

Ramzan Kadyrov is finishing the job his father started when he shifted allegiances and steered Chechnya back under the sway of Moscow. The younger Kadyrov has managed to silence dissent, pacify the breakaway republic and embark on a massive reconstruction campaign.

Kadyrov's biography is brutal and Byzantine. His story is the story of Chechnya, and also a glimpse into the violent underbelly of modern Russia.

Today the streets of Grozny, famously flattened in a ruthless rain of Russian bombs, ring with construction and adulation of the young president. "God brought us Kadyrov!" exclaims a taxi driver as he steers through the capital.

Kadyrov's critics say that he lords over Chechnya using terror and violence, that he has created a neo-Soviet dictatorship. But his critics are hard to find, because they have a habit of disappearing.

"When Ramzan Kadyrov came to power, the fear began. This fear creeps into people's hearts gradually," says Tatiana Kasatkina, the Moscow-based executive director of Memorial, a Russian human rights group that has been active in Chechnya for years. "These are people who fought in the mountains, they are rebels and their arms are soaked in blood up to their elbows. Their code is, if you go against us or you go against Kadyrov, you'll be exterminated."

When Kadyrov hears the term "human rights group," he smiles, puts a knife in his mouth and bites down on it.

Then he says all the stories are lies.

--

There are a few things Kadyrov won't talk about. The first is the war. When Chechnya fought the first of its two wars for independence from Moscow, Kadyrov and his father fought against the Russians. He shrugs that he was "15, maybe 16" when he led his first militia. He says he didn't have a childhood. He doesn't want to remember those times.

The process of switching sides to the Moscow camp -- that, too, is an unwelcome topic. "I was always with the people," he says. "I don't know who changed which side, but I was always with the people."

Nor will he talk about his father's death in May 2004. Kadyrov was in charge of his father's security, but he was in Moscow the day he died. Somebody planted an artillery shell smack under his seat in a soccer stadium in Grozny.

Kadyrov wears his father's mantle eagerly. The scarcely rebuilt capital is crowded with memorials to Akhmad Kadyrov, many of them adorned with this quote: "I have always been proud of my people." Akhmad Kadyrov was arguably more famous for declaring: "Russians outnumber Chechens many times over, thus every Chechen should kill 150 Russians." But that quote is nowhere to be seen.

Since Ramzan Kadyrov took over, Moscow appears to have granted him a blank check for reconstruction and a free rein to crack down. Analysts say this is the Faustian deal struck by the Kremlin: Let Kadyrov do what he wants as long as Chechnya stays quiet.

Kadyrov has nothing but praise for Putin. "He's my idol," he says. "Putin is a beauty."

For all his macho swagger, Kadyrov has gotten smoother since he came to power. Earlier in his career, he told a reporter: "I've already killed who I should have killed. . . . I will be killing as long as I live."

Reminded of those words, he smiles in recognition and nods. Is it still true? Certainly, he says. But he avoids repeating the word "kill."

"We used tough methods to show what's wrong and what's right," Kadyrov says. "Against those who didn't understand, we led a tough and even cruel struggle."

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