Chechen tiger without a chain

'I'm going to make them scream."

The president of Chechnya looks out at the menagerie of birds, floating on the murky man-made lake in his backyard: black swans, pelicans and ducks. Ostriches roam the opposite bank. Deep grunts of laughter shake his thick chest, jolting his barrel arms. Then Ramzan Kadyrov stops laughing. "Bring me the tiger!" he barks to his camouflage-clad servants. "Bring me bread!"

Two former guerrilla fighters wrestle a chained tiger down the muddy slope. The tiger rears up on its hind legs, fangs bared, and swats at the guards with splayed paws. They yell and beat the tiger about the head until the animal is low to the ground. Meanwhile, Kadyrov is tossing chunks of bread into the water for his fancy birds, imported here from all corners of the Earth. He hopes to draw them close enough to shore to get scared by the tiger. He still wants to hear them scream.

Kadyrov has been the president of Chechnya for a year; he was appointed by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin shortly after his 30th birthday made him old enough to hold the job legally. He inherited his power from his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, a Muslim cleric and separatist leader who cut a deal with Moscow after a blood-drenched war and emerged as Chechnya's president, only to be assassinated.

Ramzan Kadyrov is finishing the job his father started when he shifted allegiances and steered Chechnya back under the sway of Moscow. The younger Kadyrov has managed to silence dissent, pacify the breakaway republic and embark on a massive reconstruction campaign.

Kadyrov's biography is brutal and Byzantine. His story is the story of Chechnya, and also a glimpse into the violent underbelly of modern Russia.

Today the streets of Grozny, famously flattened in a ruthless rain of Russian bombs, ring with construction and adulation of the young president. "God brought us Kadyrov!" exclaims a taxi driver as he steers through the capital.

Kadyrov's critics say that he lords over Chechnya using terror and violence, that he has created a neo-Soviet dictatorship. But his critics are hard to find, because they have a habit of disappearing.

"When Ramzan Kadyrov came to power, the fear began. This fear creeps into people's hearts gradually," says Tatiana Kasatkina, the Moscow-based executive director of Memorial, a Russian human rights group that has been active in Chechnya for years. "These are people who fought in the mountains, they are rebels and their arms are soaked in blood up to their elbows. Their code is, if you go against us or you go against Kadyrov, you'll be exterminated."

When Kadyrov hears the term "human rights group," he smiles, puts a knife in his mouth and bites down on it.

Then he says all the stories are lies.

--

There are a few things Kadyrov won't talk about. The first is the war. When Chechnya fought the first of its two wars for independence from Moscow, Kadyrov and his father fought against the Russians. He shrugs that he was "15, maybe 16" when he led his first militia. He says he didn't have a childhood. He doesn't want to remember those times.

The process of switching sides to the Moscow camp -- that, too, is an unwelcome topic. "I was always with the people," he says. "I don't know who changed which side, but I was always with the people."

Nor will he talk about his father's death in May 2004. Kadyrov was in charge of his father's security, but he was in Moscow the day he died. Somebody planted an artillery shell smack under his seat in a soccer stadium in Grozny.

Kadyrov wears his father's mantle eagerly. The scarcely rebuilt capital is crowded with memorials to Akhmad Kadyrov, many of them adorned with this quote: "I have always been proud of my people." Akhmad Kadyrov was arguably more famous for declaring: "Russians outnumber Chechens many times over, thus every Chechen should kill 150 Russians." But that quote is nowhere to be seen.

Since Ramzan Kadyrov took over, Moscow appears to have granted him a blank check for reconstruction and a free rein to crack down. Analysts say this is the Faustian deal struck by the Kremlin: Let Kadyrov do what he wants as long as Chechnya stays quiet.

Kadyrov has nothing but praise for Putin. "He's my idol," he says. "Putin is a beauty."

For all his macho swagger, Kadyrov has gotten smoother since he came to power. Earlier in his career, he told a reporter: "I've already killed who I should have killed. . . . I will be killing as long as I live."

Reminded of those words, he smiles in recognition and nods. Is it still true? Certainly, he says. But he avoids repeating the word "kill."

"We used tough methods to show what's wrong and what's right," Kadyrov says. "Against those who didn't understand, we led a tough and even cruel struggle."

It's been years since the second Chechen war diffused into scattered guerrilla attacks, but somewhere between 3,500 and 5,000 Chechens are still missing. Nobody knows how many of those people disappeared during the war, and how many went missing on Kadyrov's watch.

But human rights activists say that most of the people who have disappeared since the young president came to power were taken by his security forces. The police forces are dominated by Kadyrov's former rebel fighters; so are the members of his personal security detail.

"We are looking for them. We are digging them up," Kadyrov says. "The majority of people who are missing committed crimes in Chechnya and left our state. Some took to the forest. Some of them died."

The rate of disappearances drastically slowed as Kadyrov grew stronger and silenced dissent, according to human rights monitors. But they warn that the statistics have gotten harder to measure as people have become more fearful.

"There's a very, very big number of people who disappear for several hours or several days and return home beaten up and psychologically broken, and most of them never say what happened to them," says Natalia Estemirova, a monitor in Grozny for Memorial. "This is being seriously hushed up."

--

Kadyrov is married and the father of five children. His tastes run to dangerous animals, fast cars and boxing.

He doesn't bother with a driver, just swings himself behind the wheel of his Mercedes and careens over the roads in snaking convoys of security officers, trailed by an identical Mercedes with an identical license plate and a look-alike driver. When he gets to where he's going, his staff rushes to change the plates, all to thwart any would-be assassin.

On the mountainside overlooking the presidential residence in Gudermes, this city east of Grozny, "There's no god but God" is spelled out in massive Arabic letters.

Out past the hulking stone house and fragrant rose garden, Kadyrov leads visitors from cage to cage in his private zoo, showing off the lions, leopards and pumas. He reaches inside to pet and tousle them, to pull them closer and slam them against the bars. He tugs hard on the lion's mane.

When the beasts growl at him, he growls right back, baring his teeth and mirroring their mugs. "This one is not friendly yet," he says, looking intently at a snarling panther. "But every person has his frequency. We'll find the frequency to deal with him."

He leads his visitors down to the pond; when they pick their way across a bridge rigged from rope and planks, he stands at one end shaking the structure. Watching them waver and lose their balance, he laughs his grunting laugh again. And then, lest anybody be confused, he crows: "I'm doing it on purpose!"

Later he hunches over a table spread with fine black caviar, "choco pies" and fresh apricots. He brags about the military academy he's opened to train members of his personal security detail, then brings out a documentary his men made of the teenagers attacking tanks and fighting each other in martial arts.

"Watch this, watch this, it's the best part," he says. On screen, a cadet connects a hard kick to the head of his opponent. Techno music pulses in the background. "That's a beauty!" Kadyrov says. He admires Mike Tyson and his "fists of iron." After meeting the American boxer in Moscow, Kadyrov persuaded him to pay a visit to Grozny.

"People say I paid him a lot of money. It's not true," Kadyrov says. "He should have paid money to be allowed here."

--

"Kadyrov, you've only been president for a year and the city has risen from the ashes and the people are exulting," reads a banner on Kadyrov Prospect, just across from Kadyrov Square and the Akhmad Kadyrov mosque.

At least part of that statement is true: Grozny is coming back to life with remarkable speed. Two years ago, the city had one stoplight. Today there are supermarkets, a small hotel attached to a working airport, billiard halls, a movie theater and restaurants, two of which are named Hollywood.

All of this, courtesy of Moscow -- the price of peace. "As much as we need," Kadyrov says. "They destroyed all of it, so why shouldn't they? Our people are not to blame. They should have carried out pinpoint strikes, not what they did. I always tell them. I demand. They are obligated to rebuild and if it doesn't happen, I'll write my resignation paper."

When the evening comes, the streets are quiet and clotted with people, out strolling among the rosebushes, perched on benches, picking their way between construction sites and streets ripped open to lay pipes. But it is a renovation founded on boneyards. Human remains keep coming to light. European human rights groups have set aside money for a laboratory to identify the bodies, but so far there is no laboratory, and no identification.

There are surfaces here, and then there are the realities. The surfaces are mostly new, and generally covered with Kadyrov's face. But as soon as a klatch of old women sees visitors pulling up to the yard of a resurfaced apartment house, they begin to yell: "There's no water! There is nothing inside! Not even doors!"

The women lead the way up the concrete staircases, the smell of human waste thickening as they climb. They duck into an apartment and gesture around in despair: Bare, cracked floors have been patched up so hastily that concrete smears the walls and the footprints of workmen are permanently sunk into the rooms. There is no running water, sewage or toilet. No doors. Only a naked bulb dangling from the ceiling.

But when somebody mentions the thousands of missing people to a woman named Zaira Dovletbayava, her eyes widen and fly to the minder sent by Kadyrov's press office.

"No," she says, quietly and quickly, eyes fixed on Kadyrov's man. "There are no missing people."

--

It's graduation day at the Kadyrov School, a freshly opened elementary and high school named after Chechnya's most famous clan. All 1,400 students have been invited to the party. Russian rock music booms through the corridors, out to where the senior girls and boys in red sashes pose for photographs. The girls wear patent leather spike heels, generous slabs of makeup and big earrings under their head scarves. Like everything else in Grozny, the school is very clean and very full of Kadyrov. Bright, burst balloons litter a courtyard buckled from bombs. "He alone managed to save us all," read the posters on the wall. "The worthy son of a worthy father."

The principal is sitting in her office, overflowing with cakes and candies and fresh fruit. She adores the president. He isn't afraid to do the "dirty work," she says. "We ordinary people are very, very grateful to him," she says, "because he fulfilled our dreams."

She recently took a handful of her best graduates to meet the president.

"On that day I realized he is really the leader of the youth," she says. "I saw the children's eyes, and they were full of admiration. And I thought, 'They'll do whatever he tells them.' "

--

megan.stack@latimes.com

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