Geopolitics

Welcome To 'Ramzanistan': Chechnya's Kadyrov Rules With Iron Fist, Putin's Blessing

Ramzan Kadyrov has absolute power over Chechnya. He controls everything from the reconstruction of the capital Grozny to what women are allowed to wear. Behind the pomp, Vladimir Putin’s spiritual heir is “normalizing” the country through terror.

Grozny-City and the Grozny Mosque
Grozny-City and the Grozny Mosque
Marie Jego

GROZNY - Despite its 250,000 residents, the Chechen capital is a ghost town. Not a soul on the streets, no cars. "You must have a special pass to be allowed to get around," says an official. The only action comes from the avenue next to the mosque: a group of orange-jacket-clad women are twirling brooms in a cloud of dust. All the streets in the city center have been blocked, and armed men are posted everywhere. Is the city getting ready for war? Under a state of emergency?

All of a sudden the sound of an engine breaks the silence. "It's him..." word quickly spreads through the mosque's courtyard where the faithful, guards and a few invited journalists are waiting. As soon as the black Mercedes parks, they all flock to its tinted windows. A chubby man steps out: Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, is here to celebrate his 35th birthday in style.

Vladimir Putin placed him at the head of the Muslim republic five years ago. Since then, Kadyrov has become the figure of the "normalization" wanted by the Kremlin after two barbaric wars between the federal army and the rebels from 1994 to 2004.

The Kremlin boss and the Chechen leader now have a father/son bond. When Kadyrov's father, Mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, a Russian ally, died in an attack in 2004, Putin took the young Kadyrov under his wing. "When my father was alive, I always compared myself to him. Now the only leader that counts is Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin. He is my role model. I try to set the same policies as he does," he told Russian TV channel NTV.

Thanks to the money sent by Moscow, he turned the once destroyed Grozny into a picture-perfect city displaying it's new-found wealth: luxurious SUVs, well paved roads, perfectly cropped lawns, beauty salons to meet the Botox craze and sushi restaurants along Putin Avenue.

Grozny's architecture is extravagant. Close to the mosque, which is a pale copy of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia built by Turkish workers from 2006 to 2009, there are five newly constructed skyscrapers. That's "Grozny City," the business center that gives the capital a sort of Dubai feel. About 10 years ago when the war was at its peak, dogs were eating cadavers on the nearby Minutka square. Now it's all parks, fountains and over-the-top palaces. Grozny is no longer one of Russia's provincial towns, it has become the capital of a virtual state: "Ramzanistan."

But with what money? Only Russian funds? "Allah gives us some. We don't always know exactly where the money comes from," says Kadyrov. A fierce critic of radical Islam, the Chechen leader still doesn't miss an opportunity to show his religious ardor. Back in September, in a convertible Rolls Royce, he triumphantly displayed a precious cup that the Prophet himself is believed to have drank from. To greet the Rolls and the 60 black Mercedes following it, all of Grozny's students were ordered to stand on the sides of the road leading from the airport to the city center.

There is now an Islamic university and a traditional medicine center. Many families follow the leadership of sheiks, spiritual gurus, faith healers and judges. On TV, from 9pm to 10pm, religion students participate in the "lalimun," a game show where they must identify the origins of the different Suras chosen by a jury of wise men.

Eyes are everywhere

Grozny could be described as Arabian Nights meets George Orwell's 1984. Over the four minarets, a 24-hour camera rides on rails suspended between the avenue and the gardens. The big round lens is like Kadyrov's eye. The Chechen leader keeps a close watch and makes all decisions: reconstruction, the latest models of luxury cars, the Dhikr (a Sufi prayer ritual) and what women wear. In Chechnya, girls have to wear the headscarf starting at age 7. In neighboring Ingushetia, it's the opposite. The veil is forbidden in grade school.

Just like in Russia, this vertical power is protected by extortion and corruption. To get a job, one must pay. Leyla (names have been changed to protect those interviewed), a doctor, got a job at the hospital after paying 300,000 rubles (about 7,000 euros) to her employer. A few months later, she was told that she was no longer fit for the job, that she was unskilled, badly dressed and would probably be fired. She believes someone else was ready to pay even more to get her job. Had she stayed, she would have had to earn back the 300,000 rubles she paid, at the expense of the patients.

Fatima, a teacher, says all employees and students must make regular payments of a few hundred euros to the Akhmad Kadyrov Fund. No one knows how it's managed but everyone, from businessmen to maids, must contribute. Not an easy task in a country plagued by unemployment (59.6% according to the Russian Federation's Regions' Ministry.) Finding a job is a hard task when there are no factories and no investments, just football fields, empty luxury hotels and half-built shopping malls and mosques.

"My family only thinks about one thing, getting close to Ramzan's motorcade when he throws 5,000-ruble-bills (about 116 euros). It's humiliating. I can't take this feudalism and this movie set scenery anymore," says Rizvan pointing to his flat screen TV showing Kadyrov's 35th birthday ceremonies complete with a concert, acrobats and laser shows.

Money is not an issue for Timur. He has contacts, works for the state and is developing a small business. "I only think about money. I want my children to go to the best schools, to have the best clothes," he says as he drives his Japanese SUV. But despite his financial situation and his contacts, he is afraid. "There is no such thing as business here, just extortion. Tomorrow, they can come and take everything I have, lock me up and no one would be able to save me."

Though it's impossible to film and hard to measure, fear can be felt everywhere. Every person interviewed started off with the same warning: "If you quote me by name, I'm dead.." To keep this fear alive, there's nothing like the gory videos that Chechens share on their cell phones. Kadyrov allows his thugs to leak footage of their violent punishments. Young Chechens are very fond of this sort of snuff movie showing torture, agonies, cadaver desecration and other barbaric acts.

Not many people make it out of Kadyrov's secret jails alive. Umar Israilov, who fled to Vienna, willingly told of his experience in Kadyrov's custody, how Kadyrov would come by and torture prisoners suspected of supporting the Islamist rebellion spreading across the Caucasus. He tried to press charges in front of the European Court of Human Rights, but ran out of time: He was shot dead in Vienna in January 2009. According to the Austrian police, his murderers, Kadyrov's men, disappeared. Lechi Bogatyrov, the suspected gunman wanted by the Austrian authorities, is now the head of a department of the Chechen Interior ministry. Russia has not responded to requests for cooperation on the case.

Read the original article in French

Photo - gorod grozny

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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