New Chechen Leader Stirs Fear, Distrust

Times Staff Writer

There was a time when Khamid Khadayev hated the Russians enough to give up everything he had for a chance to kill them. And he had a lot: a large house and outbuildings, a stable full of prize breeding horses, a woodworking shop with expensive electric tools.

The 51-year-old carpenter was born on the frozen steppes of faraway Kazakhstan, after Josef Stalin ordered the entire population of Chechnya into exile. Half of them died of cold, disease and hunger. But Khadayev found his way home. And when Chechnya tried to break away from Russia in 1994, he answered the call to war.

“I sold my elite horses,” he said. “I bought a rifle, a submachine gun, a pistol and a grenade launcher.”


These days, however, Khadayev isn’t out fighting with the Chechen rebels. He’s back home in this small farming village, though the only horse he has left is a work nag and there is no electricity to run his tools. He still hates the Russians -- but he has come to distrust the Chechen leaders even more.

Since the Russians began to hand over political power to Kremlin-backed Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov last year, he said, no one has felt safe.

“There will be no stability in Chechnya, ever, as long as he is in charge,” Khadayev said. “Kadyrov’s men are stealing cars. They’re stealing people.... We will never have any kind of order as long as we have a bandit in power.”

Russia appears to have a new strategy for the breakaway republic, with which it has been at war for most of the past nine years: Leave the Chechen quagmire to the Chechens.

In a policy that has been compared to an American idea for Vietnam -- declare victory and leave -- Russia over the past year has been drawing down its forces in Chechnya and creating a government, headed by Kadyrov, that is ruling the ravaged Caucasian republic through intimidation and violence.


Feared Security Force

In the months since Kadyrov took power in an October election whose fairness was widely questioned, the new president has built a large security force whose members have been responsible for kidnappings, beatings, extortion and thefts on a scale nearly comparable to wartime, Chechen residents and human rights workers said.While Russian forces are focusing their efforts on wiping out remaining Chechen rebels, day-to-day security has largely been handed over to Kadyrov and several Chechen police forces controlled by his son and nephews. A feared new prison has been established in Kadyrov’s hometown, Tsenteroy, and there are widespread reports of extrajudicial detentions and beatings there.

Earlier this month, Kadyrov’s government acknowledged that more than 400 people disappeared in the republic last year. Human rights groups said the figure was likely three or four times higher. And while Russian troops remain responsible for most operations in rebel strongholds in the south, Kadyrov’s forces were behind a large number of the disappearances in Grozny and surrounding towns, especially in the last few months, human rights workers said.

“The situation is changing. Now, the federal troops are not so cruel anymore. And it is Kadyrov’s men who are displaying cruelty,” said Natalia Estimirova, an investigator with the Memorial human rights organization in the Chechen capital, Grozny. She ticked off dozens of reports of arrests and disappearances since the Oct. 5 presidential election.

“Kadyrov has achieved what [previous Chechen leaders] never managed to,” she said. “He has full control of Chechnya and its oil -- and he is loved by the Kremlin.”

Chechens feel betrayed.

“They told us that after the election of Kadyrov we would see strong power, we would see law and order. Strange men would no longer be driving around at night in [armored personnel carriers], picking people up,” said Ruslan, a 37-year-old resident of the village of Kerla-Yurt who gave only his first name.

“Now, you keep hearing from people, ‘They took away two people today, they took away three people yesterday.’ Soldiers still come in camouflage uniforms. They come in APCs. They come in masks. But now, they speak Chechen.”

Kadyrov, a 52-year-old Islamic cleric who was a rebel leader before switching sides, has hinted that Russian troops may be responsible for some of the disappearances and has vowed that his own security forces will stabilize the republic.

“The past month in the republic has been relatively peaceful, I mean, on behalf of the federal forces, which used to violate citizens’ rights, or to be more precise, perpetrated crimes against the population,” Kadyrov told reporters in Moscow in January. “Now these things have been minimized. I think this is a success not for [Russian politicians], but for Kadyrov.”

Last month, Kadyrov made an important trip to Saudi Arabia, where he won crucial backing from the leadership -- the flag bearers of Islamic orthodoxy -- in what he portrayed as a common fight against Al Qaeda terrorists. Many Chechens credit Kadyrov with a genuine desire to prevent the republic from being used as a staging ground for international Islamic warfare.

On the other hand, Chechen critics accuse Kadyrov of allowing his security forces to extract protection money from the republic’s recovering oil industry, and to benefit from the millions of dollars of reconstruction money flowing into the republic from Moscow.

Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan, is in charge of the presidential security force, which officially numbers about 1,000 men, many of whom race around the capital in trademark metallic-colored cars with darkened windows and no license plates.

Kadyrov’s nephews control members of a new street-patrol force known as the PPS and a security detail assigned to the republic’s oil facilities. A Kadyrov loyalist now heads up the republic’s elite OMON police force.

The forces widely known as “Kadyrov’s men” have become infamous even among Russian police. At a precinct office in the adjoining republic of Ingushetia, a senior police official scoffed recently when told that a reporter hoped to interview Kadyrov.

“Kadyrov is a bandit,” he said. “Do you want to hear the stories of how his men are committing acts of murder, theft and kidnapping in the territory of Ingushetia? Because I can tell them to you. And if your men are committing acts of banditry, and you don’t do anything about it, then you are a bandit.”

Khadayev, the carpenter, said he learned firsthand on Dec. 29 about the new security regime. He had stopped at the home of an acquaintance in Grozny, looking for a ride back to his village, when a group of men in camouflage gear and black masks raided the house.

“They started beating me with rifle butts. I offered no resistance, but they beat me anyway. I have no doubt that it was Chechens who arrested me. They were all speaking Chechen,” he said. Khadayev was held in a basement cell and released without explanation five days later.

“Of course, it’s a violation of human rights,” Khadayev said. “Even now, I don’t know where I was or who arrested me.”

Kadyrov’s forces have become so bold that two Russian soldiers were arrested and beaten by Kadyrov’s security forces in Valerik shortly after the presidential election. They were let go only after a tense standoff with a Russian armed convoy that arrived on the scene to demand their release.

In Grozny, a 21-year-old university student named Anzor and his friend were on their way to a video game center downtown on Dec. 18 when an unmarked car full of men suddenly stopped in front of them, blocking their path.

When the two young men crossed the street, several men dressed in camouflage and black masks leaped out of the car, shoved them against a wall, kicked them and eventually shoved them into a stolen car, Anzor said. In the car, the men placed a hat over Anzor’s eyes and began beating him with a truncheon. Later, they placed him and his friend at opposite corners of a large room and took turns kicking them and beating them with sticks.

“They said, ‘Look, you are Wahhabis,’ ” a common way of referring to Islamic fundamentalist Chechen rebels, Anzor related. “They were speaking Chechen the whole time, but they sounded very illiterate, even for Chechens. They kept calling us devils. They called us scum, bastards. From time to time, they would shoot their guns between our feet and over our heads.”

Gradually, it became apparent that one of Kadyrov’s security officers said he had seen Anzor fighting with the rebels several years earlier. Six days after they were arrested, Anzor said, the chief officer decided the man was lying.

“He shook our hands and apologized. He said he knows how hard it is for students studying at the university, and he was not accusing us of anything.”

Anzor, who suffered serious kidney damage from the beatings, is fearful of returning to school.

“It was Kadyrov’s men. I am absolutely confident of that. They told me they are from the security service of the president,” he said. “My plan now is to migrate illegally in the spring to Norway. Because I see no chances for myself here. Absolutely none. This was the last straw for me.”

Kadyrov’s supporters say his connections to Moscow will help restore normalcy to Chechnya, and the Kadyrov administration has made some progress in restoring the Chechen capital, essentially leveled by Russian bombing. Several government buildings have been rebuilt, temporary housing centers have been opened for returning refugees, and the government has built a new central market.


Dismal Conditions

But residents complain that the large public projects are useless when most citizens are living with no telephones, electricity or even running water. In some apartment buildings, raw sewage runs straight into basements. Many families who have electricity got it by running makeshift wires out their windows. Gas cooking stoves are the only heat source in many homes.

And with most Chechens living on pensions and aid handouts, there was fury last month at the Kadyrov administration’s heavy-handed attempt at municipal beautification in the old Grozny market.

In a one-day sweep, armored personnel carriers and jeeps bulldozed at least 136 market stalls that had operated for years in the street outside the main market.

Women at the market, many weeping with fury, said the stalls had been their last hope of supporting their children.

“They said it was Kadyrov’s order, and they gave us two hours to leave,” said Aymani Didigova, 34. “What are we supposed to do now?”

Farther down the street, Kurzhan Mustafayeva, 45, said she fears that the stall where she sells sheep heads -- a local delicacy -- might be next to go.

“They want us out of here. And if that happens, my family will starve,” she said. “I guess I’ll go then to the government and try to sell this head to them.” She smiled sardonically. “Everything is always changing for the worse here.”