How do you get an interview with the warlord of Chechnya?
It’s certainly not impossible. Ramzan Kadyrov periodically speaks to domestic and foreign news organizations. And he doesn’t hide from public view like most regional leaders in Vladimir Putin’s “power vertical.”
Kadyrov holds gala concerts in Grozny attended by international stars, sports a flamboyant wardrobe of homemade uniforms and openly worships Putin, who has buried him in petrodollars in exchange for fealty.
During my trip through the North Caucasus two years ago, I was determined to meet with Kadyrov. At the time I was working on a book with one chapter devoted to the North Caucasus, which after two Chechen wars has become the crucible of post-communist Russia’s statehood.
Kadyrov maintains an office in Moscow, but whenever I called his special representative, he was “very busy” or didn’t answer his phone. Trying to set up an interview in advance through Kadyrov’s spokesman was just as pointless, since the more important an official is in Russia, the less likely he is to keep an engagement.
Two colleagues of mine once bumped into Kadyrov in the lobby of the President Hotel, rumored to be his home away from home in Moscow.
The surest bet for catching Kadyrov is just to show up on his own turf, announce your presence and hope for the best. It’s also a good excuse to see the North Caucasus, possibly Russia’s least known region, while you’re at it.
Having arrived in Dagestan, I called Alvi Karimov, Kadyrov’s spokesman, and introduced myself, saying I’d be arriving in Chechnya in the coming days. I immediately followed up with an email, translated below from Russian into English.
I knew Karimov would be suspicious of me as an American, so I played up my unusual ethnic background. After all, Kadyrov showed he wasn’t knee-jerk anti-American in 2005, when he received boxer Mike Tyson in Grozny with open arms.
It probably helped that Tyson had converted to Islam before going.
* * *
Dear Alvi Akhmadovich,
It was nice to get to know you, albeit by phone. I hope that we will soon meet in Grozny.
For the last five years I’ve worked as a correspondent in the Bloomberg News bureau, where I covered the country’s most interesting company – Gazprom – and most interesting politician – Vladimir Putin. Now I’m working on a book on contemporary Russia. I consider the Caucasus to be the key to understanding Russia.
I very much would like to meet Ramzan Akhmatovich because without a doubt he’s the only leader from the Caucasus – and one of few regional leaders overall – who can claim to have the status of a national politician. As you know yourself, much is written and said about him abroad.
I don’t foresee our meeting as a typical interview but more as a conversation. Of course I’m interested in his opinion on much-publicized murders and the human rights situation in the republic – those are standard journalistic questions. But because Ramzan Akhamtovich’s position is already clear, I’d like to place the emphasis on more global issues, including
– the development of the North Caucasus,
– the role of Chechnya in this process,
– the problem of terrorism,
– the role of religion in society,
– the role of the North Caucasus in the new Russia.
I believe this kind of conversation would also be interesting for Ramzan Akhmatovich. I’m not the most typical American – I’m half Korean and half Swiss. I’ve been living in Moscow for more than seven years and have been almost everywhere in the former Soviet Union, though this is my first trip in the North Caucasus.
I thank you in advance for your help.