I see Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov every day I’m in Grozny, but he doesn’t see me.
Ramzan is on billboards and buildings and the top of every newscast of Grozny TV, meeting with lieutenants, winning soccer trophies and opening ice cream plants. A couple of times his motorcade roars past me on Putin Prospekt.
I make every effort to let my presence be known by submitting multiple interview requests by email and calling his spokesman several times a day. I hold out hope that my persistence will pay off, and that Ramzan will agree to a last-minute interview just as I prepare to leave town. Capricious scheduling is standard operating procedure for busy warlords.
On my last evening in Grozny, I’m sitting on a park bench chatting with a Chechen journalist when suddenly my phone rings. It’s Alvi Karimov, Ramzan’s spokesman. He’s waiting for me at a café on Putin Prospekt.
Apparently Ramzan has better things to do this evening than meet with me. I’m disappointed, of course, but I was never promised an interview. At least I’m getting the opportunity to speak with a representative of Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed government – the first person I meet in Grozny willing to go on the record about anything.
* * *
Karimov, dressed in a dark suit and white shirt, waits for me on the street.
He’s a small man in his early sixties with fine, neatly combed white hair. He sports a gray moustache and white stubble on his long face. We shake hands and go inside.
The waitresses know Karimov. He orders coffees for us and a small pizza for himself. Karimov places two Nokia phones on the table. One of them has a picture of Ramzan as its background.
“You’ll be forced to write what’s expected,” he says. “If it’s raining, you’ll write the sun is shining. Who wants to know that it’s peaceful in Grozny and that women don’t wear headscarves?”
I don’t like this insinuation. I tell Karimov that I can’t answer for others but only myself. Why would I have come all the way to Grozny seeking an interview with Ramzan if I already knew what I was going to write?
It’s not my fault, Karimov says. It’s just the way the Western media work. Ramzan has more than 100 pending interview requests. He has to be selective.
To Karimov, who started his career in Soviet journalism, the possibility that I could be independent and truthful is inconceivable.
* * *
The first question I would have asked Ramzan is whether Chechnya enjoys more autonomy today than it did under separatist leaders Dzhokhar Dudayev or Aslan Maskhadov. Smart people in Moscow believe that Ramzan has amassed far more power and wealth doing the Kremlin’s bidding than he ever could have resisting it.
“There isn’t a single Chechen law that contradicts federal law or the Russian Constitution,” he says. “Today Russia is giving the widest opportunities to all the regions for economic, political and cultural activity.”
He plays the we’re-just-a-humble-subject-of-the-Russian-Federation card. It’s a watertight alibi that Ramzan also uses – except when he’s extolling Sharia law and the benefits of polygamy.
Karimov speaks softly and listens attentively.
I ask him if Chechnya should serve as an example of development for the other North Caucasus republics, which are similarly racked by poverty and an Islamic insurgency. Having consolidated power at home, Ramzan has shown interest in flexing his muscles beyond Chechnya’s borders, especially in neighboring Ingushetia.
Again, Karimov offers the disciplined answer of a spokesman permanently on message. It wouldn’t be “ethical” for him to speak about Chechnya’s neighbors, he says.
“What we have in the Chechen Republic is what you get when one person takes responsibility for his people and doesn’t betray them,” he continues. “The phenomenon of Ramzan lies in uniting people.”
Ramzan travels everywhere there’s a problem. He personally knows workers at the Grozny City high-rise development. In fact he knows thousands of people by name. He goes to penal colonies and talks to prisoners. He’s improved conditions there and taken responsibility for prisoners’ families.
I ask about the boyeviki – the fighters who consider Kadyrov a traitor to Islam for cooperating with the infidel Russians.
A few years ago, there were some 10,000 to 15,000 of them, says Karimov. Today, only a handful of wretches remain. They have two options: a life sentence or getting “liquidated” in the woods.
What do they want?
“Nothing,” Karimov says. “They have no ideas. If they did, it would be possible to talk to them.”
Their leaders – like the elusive Doku Umarov – aren’t “separatists” but simple bandits.
There is no underground war, Karimov says.
I move to the subject of human rights, the most sensitive issue for the Kadyrov regime. There have been accusations of extrajudicial executions, kidnappings and intimidation. The murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova, the most prominent defenders of human rights in Chechnya, are still unsolved.
Thousands of people disappeared in Ichkeria, Karimov says, using the pro-independence government’s name for Chechnya.
“Every morning we looked to see who’d gone missing. Not a single person was guaranteed that he wouldn’t be kidnapped.”
Karimov says he was arrested and beaten twice by the separatist government’s National Security Service because of what he’d written. People didn’t go out after four in the afternoon.
Now women and girls are safe, Karimov says. Five people went missing in 2010; just a few years earlier it was 500, 600, 700 annually. The hospitals are operating again. Schools are open, even in remote villages.
There are NGOs working in Russia financed by the U.S. and Britain, he continues. What would they be good for if they didn’t report problems with human rights, for example that Chechen women are forced to cover their heads?
“I saw more women in headscarves in France than in Chechnya,” Karimov says. In Chechnya, almost half of all students are girls. Both of his daughters have earned university degrees, one in economics, the other in law.
I ask about the murders of Politkovskaya and Estemirova. Karimov repeats the standard line that the killings were used to smear Ramzan. Even Chechens ill-disposed toward their government agree. With no truth or justice, one conspiracy theory is as good as the next.
The café is closing. Time for one more question: why do the Chechen authorities often insinuate that the U.S. supports the boyeviki?
“There’s reason to regard such assertions without irony,” Karimov says.
But what gain is there for the U.S.?
It diverts Russia’s resources from building a hospital in Arkhangelsk or modernizing the army, Karimov says.
* * *
Before we part ways, Karimov indicates that he may be able to help set up an interview with Ramzan in Moscow.
Karimov gets into an official black Toyota Camry and drives off.
After I return to Moscow, I call Karimov several times to ask if Ramzan is planning a visit. He’s always polite but curt and not very helpful.
“Ramzan Akhmadovich is in Grozny, working. As far as I know, he isn’t planning on going to Moscow,” Karimov says the last time I speak to him. “If anything changes, I’ll call you.”