The Kremlin’s Favorite Muslim, Kadyrov, Goes Too Far

Putin’s most ambitious and ruthless supporter in Chechnya appears to be spinning out of control, with deadly consequences.

09.28.15 5:00 AM ET

MOSCOW — Earlier this month, the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, informed his more than one million followers on social networks that he had become “the happiest man in this land.” Something had come to pass that he never could have dreamed of, he said. He had had a transfusion, he said, from a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, so now he has the Prophet’s blood flowing through his veins.

In a not-for-attribution conversation last week, a Russian government official told The Daily Beast that the blood transfusion was seen in Moscow, as “something totally insane and wild,” but that it hardly the worst of the bad news about Kadyrov.

The Russian opposition has taken to accusing the Chechen leader, publicly,  of murder.

At an opposition rally earlier this month, Aleksei Navalny spoke about the assassination of his friend Boris Nemtsov, a leading opposition figure gunned down just outside the Kremlin walls in February, and about Kadyrov.

“My plan is to declare firmly from this stage: I think that Ramzan Kadyrov killed him,” Navalny said. “Probably on Putin’s order,” the politician added. Kadyrov said nothing in response. He did not even threaten Navalny on Instagram, the usual platform for his attacks.

"Kadyrov did not react, he said nothing; he had been accused of killing before, several times, but … he knows he will stay unpunished,” Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, Project Director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group told The Daily Beast.

In 2010, Kadyrov saw that he could play a significant role among Russian Muslims. Soon afterward, Austrian police linked Kadyrov to a dissident’s murder.

Kadyrov’s view of himself as a Muslim leader, not just a Chechen one, has always had messianic overtones. He said in a sit-down interview with this reporter at his palace in Gudermes in 2010 that he did not want to be a president of Chechnya, and would be happy to step down to play the role of an imam, specifically Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Imam: “As long as Putin backs me up,” said Kadyrov, “I can do everything—Allahu akbar!”

Putin’s Imam? Since then it seemed there was hardly anything that could surprise Russians about the 38-year-old Kadyrov’s actions. But the Prophet’s blood transfusion was seen as something outrageous among many Muslims and in Moscow political circles. “Blood transfusion sounds more than insane,” a Moscow-based analyst, Orkhan Jemal, told The Daily Beast. “It means nothing to a Muslim, and definitely does not turn anybody into the Prophet’s descendant.”

While Islam is the second largest religion in Russia, counting from 15 million to 23 million followers, only about one million Muslims live in Chechnya. “Maybe some Chechens believe that Kadyrov has a big authority for Russian Muslims, but not many Russian Muslims would agree with that,” says Danis Garayev, a Russian sociologist and expert on Islam.

Last Wednesday, Putin and his guests, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, participated at an opening ceremony for a newly reconstructed mosque in downtown Moscow that had enough space for over 10,000 people.

Kadyrov also was at the mosque, wearing Chechen folk clothing. But it’s increasingly hard for him to dress up his evil reputation, if, indeed, he even bothers to care.

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In July, 2009, after the prominent human rights defender and journalist Natalya Estemirova was shot, her employers at Memorial, the human rights organization, publicly accused Kadyrov of her murder. Kadyrov sued Memorial and won a defamation trial. But everything Estemirova criticized Kadyrov for doing, from abducting and torturing detainees to the repression and murder of their descendants, continued in Chechnya, human rights groups say.

In April, less than two months after Nemtsov’s murder, the Chechen leader ordered his security services to open fire on Russian officials who would dare to carry out investigations in the Chechen Republic without coordinating their actions with local law enforcement.

To train Chechen special forces and demonstrate their readiness for action, Kadyrov called over 20,000 armed security units to a rally at a stadium in Grozny. Kadyrov let everybody in Russia and outside its borders know that his fearless men, many of them who grew up as children of two wars, could fulfill tasks that other law enforcement agencies were not able to fulfill.

Obviously, there was a serious lobby of Kadyrov’s supporters in the Kremlin and among law enforcement, who saw him as faithful and useful for Putin’s rule. Thanks to the help of the Kremlin’s public relation experts, the number of Kadyrov’s Instagram followers grew hugely, and so did his popularity among some Muslims.

In his latest conflict with Russian officials, Kadyrov threatened a regional court in southern Sakhalin over its decision to recognize as “extremist materials” a book that quoted verses of the Quran.

Kadyrov immediately reacted.  “I demand a harsh punishment for the provocateurs who made this court decision and tried to blow up the situation in our country,” he said on Instagram. “If they don’t deal with them in the proper legal way, they will make me a criminal first of all. I personally CALL them to answer, because for me there is nothing higher in this life than the Quran.”

Kadyrov’s ploy demanding that Russia stop banning Muslim literature made many Muslims proud, even those who disrespected Kadyrov in the past. “Outside of Chechnya (where many think he is huge), people call him Kafirov, or non-believer, for serving the non-believer Putin,” says Eduard Dmitriyevich Ponarin, a scholar in St. Petersburg who is expert on Islam. “But his actions in defense of Muslim literature, of the Holy Quran, were received with appreciation by Muslims across the country.”

How significant is Kadyrov’s role in Russia? Could he ever count on a higher post outside of Chechnya?

His special securty units “can be useful in Russia’s fight against ISIS,” says Sokirianskaya. “Kadyrov is needed, that is why nobody punishes him.”

But precisely because he is so needed, and so “insane and wild," the Kremlin has good reason to worry.