But the man rousing the crowd was none other that Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader who often calls himself Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “loyal foot soldier.” In fact, Kadyrov is positioning himself as the main advocate for Russian Muslims, and at the rally on Monday he was out to show his ability to mobilize the population. Speakers vowed that followers were willing to die for his ideas, and the crowd roared back its approval, chanting, “Allah Akbar,” God is great!
Chechen police counted 1.1 million participants at the rally in the Chechen capital Grozny, while local media counted the crowd at about half that size, but it was still vast.
Kadyrov’s fury was directed at the leadership of Myanmar and at the Kremlin’s apparent indifference to the deaths of hundreds of Sunni Muslims among the Rohingya population. And Russian political observers knew how to interpret the message that the country’s key Muslim leader was sending to Moscow from the southern republic.
Writing in the business daily Vedomosti, sociologist Denis Volkov argued that Russian Muslims today had a choice between political platforms inspired by Kadyrov and the ideas promoted by the leader of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “But if 46-year-old Bakr al-Baghdadi is already losing his caliphate, 40-year-old Kadyrov is just getting his second wind, as a politician and a religious leader.”
Kadyrov appeared seated on a carved, golden throne to make a statement for his video blog, addressing millions of his fans: “If only I had my own will and a chance, I would strike with a nuclear bomb at those who kill women, children and old people,” Kadyrov said, without specifying the concrete enemy, but hinting his frustration at not being in charge of Russian nuclear arsenal.
The Chechen leader said that he had been working “with representatives of all Arab and Muslim countries.” Then this “faithful foot soldier” of Putin made a sensational statement: “If Russia is going to support those devils who commit the crime, I will be against Russia’s position, because I have my vision, my own position,” Kadyrov said with half closed eyes, as if he were tired or heartbroken.
Indeed, Kadyrov’s eyes filled with tears as he listened to a preacher addressing the enormous crowd before “The Heart of Chechnya” mosque in Grozny, promising that Chechnya would send an immense army of fighters to Myanmar. “Each of those warriors loves death more, much more, than their miserable lives,” said the imam.
The current hardship in remote Myanmar began years ago but apparently neither Kadyrov nor any of his aides have been reading news reports about the violent religious conflict between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority in Myanmar, which forced tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims into restricted camps. Kadyrov, in his video addressing Russian Muslims, admits, “We did not know about the seven-year-long crisis, we found out only now, when people started talking about it.”
Last spring, Russia and China blocked an initiative at the United Nations Security Council to resolve the violent crisis in Myanmar. Nobody in Moscow debated it, or cared much about the former British colony in Southeast Asia.
Things changed suddenly after the “million [Muslim] rally” in Grozny on Monday. At the BRICS summit meeting in China on Tuesday, when meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Putin condemned the violence in Myanmar and called for the Kremlin to seize control of the situation.
But on this issue, at least, is it the Kremlin, or Kadyrov, seizing control?