Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov—once referred to by slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya as "the Kremlin's little dragon"—has been spitting fire as the novel coronavirus spreads in his republic, and it’s not a pretty sight.
After denouncing people who violate the self-isolation regulations as terrorists who should be buried alive, Kadyrov publicly threatened Russian journalist Elena Milashina last week because what she wrote for the paper Novaya Gazeta was highly critical of the way he’s handled the COVID-19 epidemic in Chechnya.
As usual, Moscow has supported Kadyrov in his latest burst of tyrannical fury. Never mind his international reputation as an alleged murderer and megalomaniac.
The Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin in particular have not dared to oppose Kadyrov ever since he was handpicked by Putin to succeed his father as president of Chechnya in 2007. Moscow fought two brutal wars to keep the mostly Muslim Chechen Republic inside the Russian Federation, and it cannot afford to alienate this man who has proved able to subdue his subjects.
Kadyrov, 43, rules Chechnya through terror and violence as if it were his personal fiefdom, even as the Kremlin funds his lavish lifestyle. He owns a fleet of luxury sports cars, including a Lamborghini and a Ferrari, and also has a private zoo, with tigers and panthers, at his palatial residence near Gudermes. He has developed a cult-like presence, with 1.3 million of the faithful and the curious (as well as untold numbers of bots) following him on Instagram.
Not only is Kadyrov essential to keeping Chechens from rebelling against their Russian masters, but his ubiquitous hitmen have been linked to assassinations of politicians and journalists on the Kremlin's enemy list—Politkovskaya was one, and the leading Russian voice for democracy, Boris Nemtsov, was another.
Now Kadyrov is brandishing his weapons of thuggery against the coronavirus. As of Monday, Chechnya had 264 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (out of a population of 1.4 million). But 89 of these cases had occurred in the previous two days. It would seem that even if the numbers are accurate (few people think they are) the draconian measures Kadyrov introduced to fight the epidemic are losing their effect. As reported by Milashina, infected Chechens are afraid to get tested.
Kadyrov showed up Monday at a hospital in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, where 76 infected patients are being treated. He was wearing a yellow protective suit similar to the one Putin wore on a hospital visit last month.
Like Putin, Kadyrov was slow responding to the coronavirus. As late as March 11, he was telling Chechens they had nothing to fear, comparing COVID-19 to the flu and encouraging them to drink lemon and honey to boost their immunity.
A week earlier Kadyrov’s information minister was urging tourists to come to Chechnya as a safe haven from infection. People who posted warnings on social media about the virus were accused of spreading "fake news" and forced to make public apologies.
After that, messages from the top were mixed. Although schools in Chechnya closed on March 16 and restaurants on March 23—the day before the first case of coronavirus was confirmed publicly—Chechens were still being forced by the thousands to participate in so-called subbotniki (days of unpaid collective work for the state), and officials were participating actively in mass religious and ceremonial events until the end of March.
On March 25, as the Russian website Meduza reported, Kadyrov declared solemnly that borders into Chechnya had all been sealed and told his people to stay at home, avoiding family events and entertainment. (As of last week, 21,655 people who entered the republic from abroad or from other parts of Russia were under strict quarantine.)
One of Kadyrov's cabinet members also warned Chechen men against shaking hands. But on that very day, Kadyrov appeared at the opening ceremony for the Dagun Arts Palace, which featured a musical performance in a concert hall filled with people. Kadyrov was seen on television hugging other attendees.
The next day Kadyrov flew into a public rage after a man diagnosed with coronavirus violated his quarantine. The man had flown from Mecca via Istanbul to Chechnya with two others who also tested positive for the virus and later held a prayer meeting. Kadyrov declared that the man deserved to be killed: "He should be buried in the ground—bury him, leave him to die if he does not care about the fate of my people. Why do we destroy terrorists?... So they do not kill people… A terrorist can kill a few people, but this infection can kill tens of thousands."
By March 29, when an isolation regime was announced officially, according to reporting by Milashina that day, Chechen police were dragging people who were not wearing masks from their cars and beating them with polyurethane pipes. (The same ones they use in secret prisons, she noted.)
Milashina's subsequent piece, on April 12, "Death From Coronavirus—A Lesser Evil," apparently was the last straw for Kadyrov. She described a funeral a few days earlier of a Chechen named Akhmad Garaev, who was very influential among the Chechen religious leaders and who, having been close to Kadyrov's father, the former Chechen president, was loyal to the current regime.
The speaker of the Chechen parliament, Magomed Daudov had announced that Garaev, who was over 80, had died in the hospital of natural causes. But his family said that Garaev died at home, apparently of COVID-19. The very evening of the funeral, nine of Garaev's relatives, including his wife and brother, were diagnosed with the disease. Milashina estimated that there were 500 people at the funeral, and none of them were tested afterwards for the virus. Instead the authorities ordered all of them to self-isolate and posted policemen outside their doors to prevent them from leaving their homes.
Milashina observed that "the coronavirus has paralyzed the republic's entire population, except its leader." Kadyrov, she wrote, leads an active life: "He travels to remote areas to release domesticated mountain goats into the wild. While residents of the republic are making ends meet from the humanitarian aid distributed by the Kadyrov Foundation, Kadyrov himself eats shashlik in cheerful company outside at his high-altitude residence. Having forbidden people to pray and closed the mosques, Kadyrov goes with a large group of associates to a private mosque during the day and at night, together with the elders, prays at holy places scattered throughout Chechnya."
According to Milashina, mass illegal arrests were continuing unabated, and some of the detainees continued to be brought to Kadyrov at his residence, a practice that Kadyrov has long enjoyed.
Kadyrov told journalists that he and his large staff, along with his guards and family, are tested for the virus twice a day. "Do they manage in Chechnya to test anyone except Kadyrov and his entourage?" Milashina asked. Apparently not.
Many of those Milashina spoke with said they would not get tested if they had symptoms because Kadyrov had publicly equated those infected with terrorists who deserved reprisals. Even if they did seek medical help, sick Chechens would probably be disappointed. Milashina reported that in several regions that are under quarantine because of the virus, hospitals and urgent care centers are closed and doctors are on leave without pay. The hospitals that are open lack crucial supplies, such as masks and personal protective equipment.
As a result of Kadyrov's outrage over Milashina's April 12 piece, the Russian prosecutor general ordered the state's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, to have it removed from the paper's website on April 15 because of "inaccurate reporting."
Meanwhile, on April 13, during a live broadcast from a meeting of the Chechen coronavirus operational headquarters, Kadyrov called Novaya Gazeta an enemy of the people and issued a thinly veiled threat against Milashina: "Hey gentlemen, the Federal Security Service [FSB], you have to ensure security. You are supervising this newspaper. Stop these nonhumans who write, provoke my people… If you want us to commit a crime, just say so. One can take this burden of responsibility and bear the punishment under the law. He will sit in prison and get out."
Given the history of assassinations widely assumed to have been ordered by Kadyrov, and the fall-guys who are patiently serving prison terms for them, nobody could mistake the import of this threat.
Milashina has been covering Kadyrov and Chechnya for several years, despite the danger of reprisals for her writing. It was Milashina who first exposed Kadyrov's horrific campaign against gays that resulted in widespread arrests and torture of members of Chechnya's LGBT community.
In early February this year, Milashina and her lawyer, Marina Dubrovina, were in Grozny to cover the trial of a Chechen blogger named Islam Nukhanov, who was being prosecuted for his revelations about corruption among top Chechen officials. The two women were beaten up at their hotel by a group of 15 strangers who were never apprehended.
Speaking by phone to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which condemned Kadyrov's statements and called for an investigation, Milashina said she was “really afraid, as Kadyrov’s threats are really serious and he is a dangerous man. I know that if he really decides to kill me, he will do it.”
On April 16 Russia’s Standing Commission for Freedom of Information and the Rights of Journalists of the President's Council for Human Rights condemned Kadyrov's statements as "undisguised threats" against Milashina and the editors of Novaya Gazeta, and protested to the Russian prosecutor general. But when asked about these threats, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made excuses for the Chechen leader: "The statement was certainly very emotional. But, on the other hand, the situation now is also quite emotional. So we didn’t see anything unusual here. Naturally, everybody’s a little on edge right now, so to speak."
The indomitable Milashina responded to Russian authorities in a new piece on Saturday. Noting that "the Kremlin is unable to calm the raging Kadyrov without a victim," she pointed out that everything she wrote in her banned article was based on facts and statistics.
But Milashina's views are the last thing the Kremlin officials want to hear, given their own inept response to the coronavirus. Indeed, whatever the outcry from journalists and human rights groups, Putin and his cronies probably welcome Kadyrov's menacing warnings to Milashina. As Russian journalist Roman Dobrokhotov noted on Friday: "Everything Kadyrov says, including his threats and political statements, if they are not immediately disavowed by the Kremlin or Kadyrov himself, comes from Putin. Vladimir Putin does not want to intimidate journalists on his own, so he delegates these functions to Ramzan Kadyrov."