Democracy Lab

The Chechen Boss

Chechnya’s president is building power in Russia. And his thugs aren't listening to the FSB.

GROZNY, Russia — The president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov (age 36), is an unrivaled power and authority in Russia's southern republic. Surrounded by a personal army, his life is protected by thousands of muscle-bound armed men known as Kadyrovtsy, or "Kadyrov's followers." These are largely former guerillas that turned to serve the state in its ongoing war against Islamist groups -- many of whom fought a separatist war against the Russian military in the past. Russians identify them by their black uniforms or by the Cyrillic "Chechnya" written across the back of their T-shirts. The most distinguishing feature is the intense look on their bearded faces; their eyes saying "just you try it."

The methods Kadyrov's militants use are often violent. They've been known to focus on families, kidnapping relatives as a way of persuading Islamist guerillas to give themselves up. Russian federal investigators working in Chechnya like to say: "If somebody tells you it is difficult to work in Grozny, do not believe it -- it is impossible to work here." While previously confined to the North Caucasus republic, the Kadyrovtsy's brutish methods have started spreading to Moscow. Even in the capital, they act with impunity, carrying out hits publicly in broad daylight.

The King Kongs of the Russian law enforcement agencies, the Federal Security Service (the FSB -- previously known as the KGB) and the Investigative Committee, are reluctant to investigate crimes committed by Kadyrov's loyalists, given their role in stabilizing the once-volatile Chechnya. In a café in Moscow's outskirts, three depressed and drinking FSB officers met with -- of all people -- Novaya Gazeta investigative journalist Sergei Kanev to reveal their problem. "The investigators claimed to have gone on strike," he said. "They even felt like quitting the service after their suspects, members of Kadyrov's bodyguards suspected of kidnapping and torturing a man in Moscow, were let free before even standing trial. They felt helpless and powerless, they said, as if somebody spat into their souls."

Never before have representatives of the FSB shared their feelings so openly with reporters from Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's few independent media outlets and hated by officials. Their names are kept anonymous now that they are potential targets of the "bandits-in-uniform." The deputy chief editor of Novaya Gazeta, Sergei Sokolov, said he saw this coming: "It did not happen just today. Officers assigned to work on cases involving Chechen officials have to choose between their professional dignity, and professional humiliation." The FSB's authority as investigators is being ignored, a huge slight for the powerful security agency.

It's largely understood that crimes by Kadyrov's security forces in Chechnya go unpunished due to his close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kadyrov doesn't even try to hide it: "As long as Putin backs me up, I can do everything -- God is Great!" he told me when we spoke at his home in Gudermes.

Today, gloomy men with Kalashnikovs guard the gate to Kadyrov's official residence in Gudermes as well as his family house in Tsentroi. They provide security at checkpoints and patrol the streets along Putin Prospekt, the central avenue in Chechnya's capital city Grozny. Traffic police in the republic do not stop cars with the KRA (Kadyrov Ramzan Akhmatovitch) abbreviation on their plates. This deference has spread as KRA-marked Porches and Lexuses, apparently a favorite among Kadyrov's men, started appearing on the streets of Moscow. (It's part of the extravaganza he surrounds himself with, and includes a car collection and private zoo. Kadyrov has also been known to fly out western celebrities to entertain him for his birthday.)

Russian officials complain that Putin's once perfect power vertical seems to be cracking when it comes to attempting a reasonable dialogue with Kadyrov. The army feels especially bitter about the cases of Lt. Yevgeny Khudyakov and Lt. Sergei Arakcheyev, two of the few Russian troops to receive long jail terms following a criminal prosecution for killing Chechen civilians in 2003. The military believes that Arakcheyev is innocent and suspects that the court made a biased decision in order to please Kadyrov.

Yuri Krupnov, the head of a pro-Kremlin's think tank, wrote an open letter to Kadyrov, calling on the president to look into "fixing the deepest injustice committed against Arakcheyev, who has become a symbol of the situation in the North Caucasus." So far, Grozny has not replied.

Moscow has sent little to no support to aid the accused law enforcement officers. At least for now, the Kremlin sees challenging the current regime in Chechnya as risky and undesirable, and is tolerating Kadyrov's rule above-the-law to spill outside Chechnya's borders. "The Kremlin considers Kadyrov's model of counter-insurgency and governance effective, and is likely to continue granting Kadyrov and his people very broad credentials" according to the Moscow director of International Crisis Group, Yekaterina Sokirianskaya. "This will not change, unless the pressure for change from within Russian society dramatically increases."

Democracy Lab

The Dead Man's Trial

The posthumous trial of an anti-corruption crusader.

MOSCOW — Without a word, a gloomy cleaning lady in a blue apron and pink rubber slippers over long woolen socks pushed a mop down the narrow corridor. A crowd of tired and quiet reporters shuffled aside to let her pass. Her mop rubbed the dirt from the wet floor of the waiting area of the Tverskoi Courthouse, only to be immediately muddied again by hundreds of boots. Five hours had passed since the scheduled start of the latest hearing in the trial of a dead suspect, the first such trial in Russia's history. The suspect in question was Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail at age 37, three years ago. Inside Courtroom Number 4, the benches and chairs remained empty. So did the suspect's cage (shown above).

"Get out of here!" an annoyed security officer in black uniform shouted at reporters, pushing people away from the court door. Silence filled the stuffy space. People looked lost, trying to understand the true meaning behind the man's statement. Did it mean that the trial would be once again delayed for many hours, or cancelled entirely? Nothing has made any sense so far. "Is there any scenario, any purpose for making journalists wait for so long?" I asked Vera ?heilsheva, an experienced court reporter for the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "Clearly they want us to lose interest in Magnitsky," she answered. And today she had no expectations of witnessing the miracle of justice in Russia.

Not one foot budged from the wet floor of the court door. From the day of his arrest in November 2008 to the day of his death in prison in November 2009, the young lawyer never had a chance to have his day in court. But he believed in justice and a fair trial, his family and supporters say, and continued to accuse senior Russian police and tax officials in organizing a $230 million fraud. "He was angry to see evidence of stupid falsifications, stupid lies at his preliminary court hearings, but he believed that somewhere there had to be some heroic judge of dignity and courage," Magnitsky's mother, Natalya Magnitskaya, said in a phone interview. Along with Sergei's family members, friends, and civil society activists, Mrs. Magnitskaya boycotted the trial of her dead son and stayed at home today.

Her deceased son's name has long since a symbol for the fight against the corruption of Russian officials, and also a symbol of the poor relationship between Russia and the United States. Interest in the Magnitsky case has shown no sign of fading either in Russia or on the West. Magnitsky was originally accused of helping his employer William Browder, the head of Hermitage Capital, evade over $17 million in taxes. Earlier this month investigators brought new charges against Browder alleging he "illegally purchased" Gazprom's shares. A law named after Magnitsky, and signed by U.S. President Barack Obama last December, punished the entire chain of Russian officials guilty in the lawyer's death, denying them U.S. visas. Magnitsky's family appealed to the British government to adopt a similar law, since London is home to some of the richest and most influential Russian families. A group of young Russian enthusiasts and human rights activists continue to work on an independent investigation of Magnitsky's case: "We recently sent a file regarding the head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, to the U.S. Sate Department, and asked that he be added to the list of punished officials," activist Natalya Pelevina said.

Earlier this week, Russia closed the criminal investigation of Magnitsky's death due to "the absence of a crime" committed against him. But the international community still called for the responsible Russian officials to be punished. As the hearing was about to begin, the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute released a report harshly criticizing the court for putting a dead man on trial. "The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation decision of 14 July 2011 does not give law enforcement agencies a basis to pursue or revive charges against a deceased person," they wrote.

No official in the courtroom today seemed too concerned about how the process would appear to the outside world. As in a theater of the absurd, the detention cage meant to hold Magnitsky and his former employer, American businessman Bill Browder, remained empty during the trial, but guards in black uniform still stood there, protecting the absent accused. The prosecutor, occasionally smiling to himself, listed the accusations against the defendants, who are charged with evading $17 million in taxes. The judge, Igor Alisov, looked more than confident from underneath his square glasses. So too did the two prosecutors, as well as the representative of the federal tax police service, a woman who showed up to the court wearing a luxurious mink coat. Unexpectedly, the state-appointed defense attorneys actually attempted to seek justice for their clients. They asked the court to have the Constitutional Court rule on the constitutionality of trying the dead. But Judge Alisov overruled their appeal -- thus ensuring that the trial will continue next week.

I managed to get Bill Browder, Magnitsky's co-defendant, on the phone from London  shortly afterwards. "This trial will be written about in the history books as the hallmark of Russia's descent into legal nihilism," he said. 

Photo by ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images