Nobody I meet in Chechnya wants me to publish their name. You never know. Enough critics and opponents of the Kremlin’s puppet Chechen government have been gunned down in broad daylight – not just in Grozny, but in Moscow, Vienna and Dubai.
The only Chechen who feels comfortable speaking on the record is strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, though it seems even he takes precautions. Once he told a Moscow newspaper that he’d rather die 100 times than let down his patron Vladimir Putin. On the couple of occasions that I get through to Kadyrov’s spokesman to request an interview, I’m given evasive, non-committal answers.
I meet with a Chechen named REDAC REDACTED, who asks me just to call him “a public figure.” I’m going to censor myself by redacting any other identifying clues, such as what he does, where we meet or what he looks like. It may seem ridiculous, but Chechnya is a small place.
Even if the fighting is over, fear still inhabits the neat and tidy streets of Kadyrov’s new capital. People can vanish without a trace.
I REDACT ED REDACT EDRED ACTED to meet REDACTED. He works in a RED ACTEDRE DACTEDRED ACT ED. REDCACTED is a REDACT by profession and REDA CTEDREDA CTED RE DA CTED RED Moscow REDA CTED RED ACTED. REDACTED RE DACTE DRED ACTE DRE Kadyrov REDACTED.
I ask REDACTED about the apparent Islamization of Chechnya under Kadyrov. There have been reports that women are increasingly being forced to wear headscarves. And just the other night, I couldn’t find a drink in downtown Grozny for the life of me.
REDACTED is REDACTED and first REDACTED REDACTED.
Islam came to Chechnya recently, over the past 300 years, he says. It was a gradual process, spread by missionaries from neighboring Dagestan. They taught what they knew – and not all of them even understood Arabic. Over time, sheikhs and clerics appeared in Chechnya who had their own particular ideas on how to worship, REDACTED explains.
In the lull between the first and second wars with Russia, young Chechens went abroad to study, while proselytizing Arabs started arriving in Chechnya. After decades of godless communism, there was a religious revival.
In the second war, Kadyrov’s father Akhmad, the mufti of independent Chechnya, switched sides and became the head of the Moscow-backed administration. Kadyrov Sr. opposed Wahhabism, the Arab-inspired Islamic fundamentalism embraced by a new generation of Chechen fighters. Their goal isn’t an independent Chechnya anymore, but a Taliban-like emirate stretching across the North Caucasus.
To prove they weren’t helping the infidel Russians fight true believers, Kadyrov Sr. – and later Ramzan – made ever showier displays of their faith, REDACTED says. Grozny’s new mosque, a copy of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, is the most ostentatious example. It’s named after Kadyrov Sr., who was assassinated in 2004.
“This is all about undermining the ideological basis of those who say Ramzan is fighting Islam,” REDACTED says. REDACTED is certain that the Kremlin is using Chechnya’s religious rebirth to urge Arab states not to support the Islamist underground.
I’m surprised that REDACTED, who is secular, downplays the danger presented by Wahhabis.
“Chechnya’s religious revival is about undermining those who say Kadyrov is fighting Islam.”
REDACTED makes no secret that his sympathies still lie with an independent Chechnya, even if he didn’t support its leaders Dzhokhar Dudayev and Aslan Maskhadov, who were both killed by Russian forces.
But how could a tiny, land-locked mountain republic like Chechnya have ever hoped to be a viable state?
In 1991, Chechnya had a population of 1 million, natural resources (oil) and some industry, REDACTED says. Dudayev’s mistake was that even before the first war, he didn’t set up institutions like a tax service or pension fund, help the development of private enterprise and get rid of incompetent ministers. What followed were two devastating wars and “total isolation” from the outside world, both diplomatically and economically.
REDACTED lends no credence to the widely-held notion in Moscow that Putin’s “Chechenization” policy has paradoxically turned Kadyrov into the most powerful and autonomous regional chief in Russia.
“The impression that Kadyrov is off on his own isn’t correct,” REDACTED says. “Nothing happens without the agreement – or against the will – of Moscow.”
So has the Kremlin succeeded in subduing Chechnya after all?
REDACTED looks back into history.
After the Russian conquest in the mid-19th century, things quieted down in Chechnya until the Soviets seized power. A rebellion against Stalin in the early 1940s was punished with the deportation of the entire Chechen population to the wilds of Central Asia.
“This all left an imprint on Chechens’ historical memory: invasion, repression, deportation,” REDACTED says. “That’s why Chechens went for Dudayev in 1991.
“The situation hasn’t changed. If somebody thinks the Chechen problem is solved, they’re deeply mistaken,” REDACTED says. “I’m not sure that in 10 or 20 years some minor incident won’t bring people out into the streets again. I can’t rule out that the future will be even worse.”