Drive down Victory Boulevard in Grozny, and you'd never think there had been a war in Chechnya. Five years ago this broad avenue looked like Stalingrad after World War II. Now it's flanked with new apartments and boutiques selling Italian clothes. Across the city, war-damaged buildings are being torn down; jackhammers roar around the clock. Floating defiantly over the ruins that remain: giant banners bearing the face of the city's conqueror, Vladimir Putin.
The rest of the world may not have noticed, but Russia's president has won the Chechen war. He did not start it, but he prosecuted it with the full might of Russia's military. The conflict was as brutal as any Europe has known in the last century. Grozny was bombed flat, along with half of Chechnya's towns. Nearly a million Chechens were displaced; 80,000 were killed, mostly civilians, and thousands more disappeared into a nightmarish network of Russian "filtration" camps, never to be seen again. There were atrocities, mass killings, the most flagrant of human-rights abuses. Yet all the while the Kremlin claimed that the conflict was little more than a police operation.
Chalk up a victory for the politics of brutal repression. But if the war was costly in terms of blood and treasure, the "peace" that the Kremlin has secured is not much less thuggish. It comes in the person of Ramzan Kadyrov, the handpicked 29-year-old prime minister of the new Chechnya. Kadyrov is a former rebel whom Moscow anointed as Chechnya's alpha warlord in May 2004 after the assassination of his father, President Ahmad Kadyrov. His brief: to pacify Chechnya by any means necessary. If Putin used divisions of artillery and 1,000-kilo bunker-busters to subdue the rebels, Kadyrov had another way. He got down and dirty, fighting--and winning--Chechen style.
Those methods have been simple, violent and effective. At their core is the so-called Kadyrovtsy, a private irregular army of close to 10,000 former rebels who wear U.S. military fatigues and black T shirts with a portrait of their leader Ramzan. Their violence is less indiscriminate than the Russians'--instead of emptying whole quarters of villages in search of guerrillas, for instance, Kadyrov's men target single households--but more extreme. Tactics commonly include kidnapping family members as a way of persuading outlaws to give themselves up, according to the human rights group Memorial.
Though Kadyrov swears "on my father's name" that he has "never tortured anybody," his men clearly aren't squeamish in their work. Last July, Kadyrovtsy hung the severed head of one prominent guerrilla leader from a gas pipe in the village of Kurchaloi as a warning to other would-be rebels. There are clear dangers with this tenuous peace, if something so brutal can be called that. One is that it will only repress popular frustrations, to erupt anew in the future. Another is the "lessons" Putin might draw from his apparent success. With Islamic unrest growing in other republics along Russia's southern border, will he be tempted to follow the new "Chechen model" in quelling it? If so, today's peace in Chechnya might well be a prelude to bloody conflict elsewhere.
So who is this man, who could be southern Russia's future? The obvious starting point is that he's his father's son. Ahmad Kadyrov, Chechnya's senior Muslim cleric as well as its president, brought up Ramzan as a Chechen patriot--and a devout Muslim. For years Kadyrov Senior fought for Chechen independence alongside rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev. Later he went over to Moscow's side after realizing that "the war would lead to nothing but total destruction of Chechen nation," explains his son. The Kadyrovtsy grew out of the father's former rebel comrades in arms. They were fiercely loyal to him and, now, to his son.
As for the son, he considers it his destiny to complete the works of his assassinated father. "I feel that he is watching me every day from heaven," says Kadyrov as he sits in a faux medieval stone gazebo in the garden of the family residence in Tsenteroi, 20 kilometers outside Grozny. The structure is surrounded by cypress trees, roses, fountains and artificial hillocks topped with small fortresses.
Kadyrov has just finished his nightly post-prayer ritual, a traditional Sufi Zikr circle dance with his friends and bodyguards. Sweating, he greets visitors in a traditional long cotton shirt and a Muslim skullcap. He's a bear of a man, with a bushy beard, but his smile and body language are irrepressibly boyish. He introduces his 1-year-old son by balancing him, standing upright, on the palm of his outstretched hand. "Oh, this one will be a warrior in the future!" he roars with delight. When the child was born last November, Chechnya erupted in so much celebratory small-arms fire, remembers Grozny resident Lida Yusupova, that many feared "a new war had started." Later, as Kadyrov shows guests around his private zoo, he spits in the face of every animal before he cuddles it to avoid the evil eye. "Only in Chechnya can you see lions, wolves and ostriches living in the same courtyard!" he boasts, petting a small lioness.
In the days when the Kadyrovs were still fighting Moscow, Chechnya's new prime minister idolized the rebel leader Shamil Basayev, mastermind of bloody hostage-taking raids on a hospital in Budyennovsk, a Moscow theater and a school in Beslan, which left hundreds dead. "I used to live in his house," Kadyrov says. "I thought of him as my hero, my leader." Today his heroes include the heavyweight boxer (and convicted rapist) Mike Tyson, who visited Chechnya last year at his invitation. And, of course, his patron Vladimir Putin. "We should all pray for Putin," Kadyrov says.
Putin has rewarded that loyalty. The day after Kadyrov's father was murdered, Putin summoned the son to the Kremlin (he appeared wearing a tracksuit in Russia's national colors) and on national television endorsed him as Chechnya's new leader. Soon after, the president made him a Hero of Russia, the country's highest honor. Kadyrov has also been anointed an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences (perhaps for his zoological interests) and last June was awarded a Masters in economics and an honorary professorship at Moscow's Modern Humanities Academy. The Chechen capital's streets are plastered with giant portraits of both his father and him. "I asked my people to rip them down," he insists modestly. "They did, but the portraits returned, spontaneously. What can I do if I am the people's hero of today's Chechnya?"
Chechnya's young hero has certainly proved ruthlessly efficient at bringing his republic to heel. He's created an efficient system of informers far better than the Russia intelligence service, the FSB, ever had. "Every former guerrilla in Kadyrov's militia knows exactly where to find a particular person and his or her relatives," says Oleg Orlov, director of the Memorial human-rights group. While violence has declined dramatically under Kadyrov's rule, he adds, disappearances remain commonplace, as do beatings and other instances of official intimidation and rights abuses. For Memorial, monitoring them is harder than ever before. "People are afraid to talk to us," Orlov says.
With Putin's backing, Kadyrov's men think they are untouchable. Tales of their freewheeling ways are legion. When his sister Zulai and a detail of bodyguards were detained by police in neighboring Dagestan last year for not having weapon permits, Kadyrov and 150 armed men stormed their headquarters in Khasavyurt, forced the offending officers against a wall and beat them up. According to the town's mayor, the Chechen leader then drove away with his liberated sister, "victoriously shooting into the air." And there are constant clashes between rival private armies, reminiscent of the period from 1995 to 1999, when Chechnya was ruled by feuding warlords. In April, two men were killed in a shoot-out between Kadyrovtsy and the bodyguards of Chechnya's president, Alu Alkhanov. There were also exchanges of fire in June between Kadyrovtsy and units of Chechnya's OMON, or paramilitary police, and again last week with Ingushetian police.
But there are signs that Kadyrov may be overstepping his bounds. According to various reports, Kremlin insiders have been put off by Kadyrov's clamorous attempts to take control of Chechnya's 7 million-barrel-a-year oil industry--along with its $450 million in revenues. Kadyrov has also raised hackles in Moscow with various inept " 'foreign' policy" initiatives beyond Chechnya's borders. After separatists in the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia fired on central-government helicopters, for instance, Kadyrov donated $100,000 to the rebels to buy arms.
Last month, when a race riot in the northern Russian town of Kondopoga forced dark-skinned natives of the Caucasus, including Chechens, to flee town, Kadyrov sent a Chechen delegation to investigate and blasted local authorities for their mistakes in handling the brawl. "Ramzan Kadyrov acts like a medieval outlaw Khan," complains Russian parliamentarian Andrei Savelyev of the nationalist Rodina Party, who has tabled a motion in the state Duma to have the prime minister removed from power.
Despite Kadyrov's occasional tactlessness, the Kremlin probably has little appetite for reining him in. Despite evidence of human-rights abuses, he is genuinely popular. He vocally complains about abuses committed by the few remaining Russian troops in Chechnya; he also publicly blasts Moscow for not providing enough money for reconstruction--though he is careful never to criticize Putin directly. Moscow's plan for now, it seems, is to install him as Chechen president soon after he becomes eligible by turning 30 next month. After that, says one well-connected political analyst, Sergei Markov, "the Kremlin is going to help Ramzan to become more civilized."
To that end, Putin's personal envoy to the region, Dmitry Kozak, earlier this summer quietly took Kadyrov aside and asked him not to come to official meetings armed or wearing a tracksuit or in his trademark baggy Islamic linen shirts and skullcaps. "Wear a suit and carry a briefcase," he instructed Kadyrov, according to Russian officials who work with the Chechen government. Kadyrov seems to have taken Kozak's advice, arriving at a recent meeting of all the heads of the North Caucasus's regions in Rostov-on-Don wearing a smart suit and driving a late-model Bentley, with two jeeploads of armed guards following in Porsche Cayenne SUVs.
Kadyrov's advisers may succeed in making their leader more presentable. But that doesn't change the fundamental problem--that imposing order by empowering a local warlord doesn't address the deep undercurrents of alienation and desperation that are driving much of the region toward radical Islam. Indeed, as Chechnya has stabilized, more unrest has been breeding elsewhere in the North Caucasus. "The war has spread around the neighborhood," says Aleksandr Cherkasov of Memorial. Last October, a shadowy Islamic group known as Yarmuk attacked police stations in Nalchik, in nearby Kabardino-Balkaria. By the time the raiders had been beaten back and the participants rounded up, 136 people had been killed. And this year in Dagestan, at least six groups of militants have been cornered and killed in sporadic shoot-outs with security forces.
Russia's southern imperial periphery has no shortage of other simmering ethnic conflicts. To stem an explosion, Moscow will have to come up with something more lasting than the Chechen model. Putting out more flags of Putin won't do it. Neither will creating more clones of Ramzan Kadyrov.