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Russia's rebellious regions: the price of Chechnya's stability

Victims of kidnappings speak out about the republic's authoritarian regime.

GOITY, Russia — When Raisa Turlueva arrived home one day in October, she saw dozens of police and the body of a man lying dead on the sidewalk. Officers said he was a rebel who had been sheltering in her home. Turlueva said she had no idea who he was.

The police brought Turlueva in for questioning, asking about her son, who they suspected of sheltering the rebel. After they let her go, she arrived home to find a smoldering ruin. Seven months later, her house remains a black carcass and she has not seen her son, Said Salekh, since.

“I believe he’s alive and he’ll come back,” she said. “I believe they’ll let him go.”

Turlueva is not alone with her wrenching tale. Hundreds of mothers across Chechnya say their children have been kidnapped or killed, according to Memorial, a Russian human rights NGO. While the Muslim republic in Russia’s south has emerged from a decade of war, its stability has come at a price — Memorial has documented more than 93 Chechens kidnapped by security forces in 2009, just a small slice of the deaths and disappearances in Chechnya since the Soviet Union dissolved 20 years ago.

In the wake of the March Moscow subway bombings, GlobalPost correspondent Miriam Elder traveled to Chechnya and Dagestan to investigate the relationship between these rebellious republics and the Russian state.
A trip through Chechnya and Dagestan

The price of Chechnya’s stability

A new museum reinforces a cult of personality

Islamic militancy brews in Dagestan

Chechnya is now ruled by one of the world’s most ruthless authoritarian leaders, Ramzan Kadyrov, a man personally appointed by Vladimir Putin. The official narrative inside Chechnya is that Kadyrov has brought stability to a republic that was ravaged by two brutal wars following the fall of the Soviet Union, as it sought independence in the spirit of a centuries-long struggle to separate itself from Moscow.

Yet critics ask: Is that stability worth the cost and, more importantly, is it sustainable?

On the surface, Chechnya is in love with Kadyrov. Posters and slogans line the sidewalks and roads in and around Grozny: “Ramzan, thank you for Grozny!” “Ramzan, thank you for working for our future!” “Ramzan, we're proud of you!”

Yet as the human rights abuses spread, so does the fear. Underlying it all is a residual, but very alive, anger with Russia. Stalin's deportation of Chechnya's entire population (then about 500,000) to Kazakhstan in 1944 counts as a recent memory (most returned in 1957, after Stalin's death). The two wars Chechnya fought for independence in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse invited a crushing response from the Russian military, leaving 300,000 people dead and most of the republic destroyed.

Kadyrov’s father, Akhmat Kadyrov, turned from independence fighter to collaborator and negotiated the end of the war. In peacetime, some of his more radical former comrades in arms continued their fight against his Russian-backed state. They killed Akhmat Kadyrov in a bomb attack in May 2004.

The current Kadyrov also has his share of enemies. Last summer, a rebel targeted the theater in central Grozny that the president was due to attend, killing six police when they blocked his way.

There are some who don't understand why the rebels continue to fight. Alvi Dubaev is the imam of Yandi-Kotar, a southern village on the border with Ingushetia. Dubaev, who studied at Egypt's al-Azaar university, supports Kadyrov wholly, mainly because he's managed to achieve what generations of rebels have not — an Islamic state.

“There's patriotism and then there's recognizing reality,” Dubaev said. “Chechnya is independent from Russia. We are the khozyain [master] of our republic.”