Originally published in The New York Times
At the beginning of April, reports surfaced that a crackdown on gay men was afoot in Chechnya, the small, turbulent republic on the southern edge of the Russian Federation. According to the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, more than 100 gay men were rounded up by the police and brutalized in secret prisons, and at least three of them were killed. Many remain in detention.
In fear and desperation, 75 people called in to the Russian LGBT Network’s Chechnya hotline. Of these, 52 said they had been victims of the recent violence, and 30 fled to Moscow where they received help from L.G.B.T. activists.
“Once they bring you there,” a survivor told me, referring to the secret prison in Chechnya where he’d been detained, “they immediately start the beatings and electrocutions, demanding information about who you were dating.” The guards, he said, would spit in the prisoners’ faces, and worse: “We were such hated creatures that each guard felt obliged to hit us when passing by.”
This persecution of gays is symptomatic of the repressive regime that now runs Chechnya. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago, that rugged outpost of the old empire has lived through separatist agitation, terrorism and two bloody wars. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, some 5,000 are still missing, and its towns were left in ruins.
Chechnya’s autocratic leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has enjoyed near unconditional support from Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, started out as a separatist Islamic leader, but at the beginning of Russia’s second military campaign against Chechen rebels, which began in 1999, he swapped sides to support Moscow.
When Akhmad Kadyrov was killed in a terrorist attack in 2004, his son took his place, muscling out rival strongmen and monopolizing power in the republic by placing his people in charge of federal institutions. Mr. Kadyrov ensured that his fighters were integrated into the local police force, largely preserving the command chains, and their violent skills were deployed in heavy-handed counterterrorism operations on behalf of the Kremlin.
In 2009, by the end of what was officially called “the counterterrorism operation,” he had succeeded in suppressing the separatist insurgency and consolidating his regime. Loyalty to Moscow was rewarded with lavish federal funds to raise Chechen towns from rubble and build shiny skyscrapers in the capital, Grozny.
Collective punishment is the hallmark of Mr. Kadyrov’s repression. Relatives of those who displease the authorities are threatened, beaten, held hostage, expelled from the republic or have their homes burned down. Such methods were first applied to suspected rebels but have spread to regime critics, religious dissenters, even drunken drivers. The same techniques have now been applied to the families of men thought to be gay, which are threatened with detention unless the suspects turn themselves in to the police.
“If somebody does not obey my orders in this republic, I’ll force him,” Mr. Kadyrov boasted on Chechen TV in 2013.
In this climate of humiliation and immense fear, Chechens are fleeing the Russian Federation en masse. Yet the Kremlin turns a blind eye to such excesses in return for allegiance. Mr. Kadyrov calls himself a foot soldier for Mr. Putin. Chechnya sends thousands of state employees, students and schoolchildren into the streets to celebrate Russia Day, Mr. Putin’s birthday and the annexation of Crimea. Chechen “volunteers” have fought in Ukraine and in Syria, and Mr. Kadyrov regularly assails the West, Russian liberals and the opposition. Above all, Mr. Kadyrov has pursued the fight against separatism and Islamist insurgency.
Chechnya is a state within a state. Mr. Kadyrov is the only regional leader in the federation who has de facto control of the security services in his territory. Beside the republic’s Russian subsidies, a parallel economy based on extortion and kickbacks thrives. State employees report being obliged to hand over part of their salaries and bonuses. In other cases, they have to purchase equipment or raise funds for reconstruction projects, or collect money as gifts for celebrities visiting Grozny.
The regime’s coercive methods are allied with punitive conservative values. Official Chechen ideology is a mix of traditionalism, Sufi Islam and Putinism. The authorities have banned alcohol, enforced dress codes and “moral behavior” for women, supported honor killings and blood feuds, and even closed orphanages as being alien to Chechen culture.
As news reports emerged about the arrests of gay men in the republic, Mr. Kadyrov met with Mr. Putin on April 19. Mr. Kadyrov is said to have complained to the Russian president about the “provocative articles” in the news media on issues he felt “embarrassed” to talk about. This show of coyness and piety no doubt played well with his supporters. Since the news broke, the Chechen leadership has fomented homophobia.
“Some think they are sadists and we are simply another social group that they are terrorizing,” a Chechen gay man told me, “but in fact, it is part of their new ideology of a ‘pure nation.’ ”
By promoting nationalism and traditionalism, Mr. Kadyrov tries to prove to Chechens that their republic now has more autonomy than separatist leaders ever dreamed of; and this justifies his strong pro-Putin position. But his appeal to tradition is self-serving and spurious. Until now, Chechnya never had any record of organized violence against gays.
Behind this facade of stability, Mr. Kadyrov lacks legitimacy, both at home and abroad. Chechnya’s ruling elite has many enemies among the Russian military, which sees Mr. Kadyrov as a separatist who was unduly promoted.
Internal tensions have also increased since 2016. An economic crisis, coupled with the state’s expropriations, has pushed large parts of the population into deprivation. While local critics are dealt with harshly, the growing Chechen diaspora in Europe has mobilized protests.
The security situation is also slipping. Last year, an assassination plot against Mr. Kadyrov was foiled. Casualties resulting from armed clashes between security services and insurgents in Chechnya rose 43 percent last year over 2015. Attacks inspired or claimed by the Islamic State have escalated and become more daring in the past six months.
Mr. Kadyrov and his clique depend entirely on Mr. Putin. It is within the Russian president’s power to halt the violence against gay men, empty the illegal prisons and force an investigation into this crackdown. If Mr. Putin continues to give the Kremlin’s tacit approval to Mr. Kadyrov’s repressions, he is only storing up trouble for the Russian Federation.
The Chechen conflict has not been resolved but merely contained by brute force and a personal bond between the two leaders. In the long run, such an unstable situation makes a deadly new conflict in Chechnya almost inevitable.
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, Project Director, Russia & North Caucasus.