‘The Chechen resistance forces are the toughest in Russia’: the Chechen human rights activist Abubakar Yangulbaev discusses opposition to Ramzan Kadyrov, the war and Chechnya’s potential future after the fall of Putin’s regime.
The Chechen Republic holds special territorial status in Russia. Immediately following the collapse of the USSR, Chechnya, under the leadership of the former Soviet general Dzhokhar Dudayev, tried to secede from the Russian Federation. This led to Russian troops entering Chechnya and a bloody war breaking out, during which time Russian forces carried out countless civilian massacres. Russia itself was also the target of terror attacks. Ultimately, the federal authorities crushed the armed resistance and Akhmad Kadyrov, who had previously supported the separatists, joined the Kremlin’s side and became head of the region. After Akhmad was killed by a terrorist bomb, his son Ramzan became Putin’s long-serving henchman in Chechnya. For years, he has run Chechnya as his own feudal fiefdom, where even the Russian Federation’s shady legal practices fail to operate.
Oppositionists in Chechnya have long been on dangerous ground. According to multiple testimonies, the number of extrajudicial reprisals, kidnappings, torture and killings of those deemed troublesome by the security forces is increasing. The absolute power of Ramzan Kadyrov in the so-called Chechen ‘Republic’ is maintained by law enforcement agencies who are personally loyal to him. He calls himself ‘Putin’s foot-soldier’, and since February 24, has repeatedly called for an escalation of the war in Ukraine. We discussed the fate of Chechnya with the human rights activist and critic of Kadyrov, Abubakar Yangulbaev. He has first-hand experience of the cruelty of the regime: his elderly mother, Zarema Musayeva, has been effectively held hostage by Kadyrov since January 20 of this year. She is in a pre-trial detention centre on trumped-up charges of fraud and attacking a policeman.
The Russian Federation almost certainly saves its harshest persecutions for Chechen dissidents. Is it fair to say that any resistance in the republic seems to have been wiped out?
The Chechen resistance forces are the toughest in Russia. I’ll elaborate: dissidents in the republic don’t hide the fact that they want to liberate Chechnya from Russian occupation. It’s created this situation in which if you’re against Kadyrov, then you’re against being part of Russia. At the same time, oppositionists don’t just risk criminal prosecution or being designated ‘foreign agents’, extremists or terrorists, but also becoming victims of brutal, brazen murders.
Boris Nemtsov, the Russian politician and an opponent of Putin, was killed on Kadyrov’s personal orders. It was a high-profile case. In Russia, no one notices these murders in Chechnya, so Kadyrov is able to deal with his own enemies with virtually no outcry or repercussions. He also hides his actions behind the ‘fight against terrorism’, simply calling his enemies terrorists and (secretly) shooting them. Activists are not the only ones in danger: their loved ones are too. Kadyrov has kidnapped, deported, tortured, robbed, executed, and even burned them alive, as well as taking them hostage. Dissidents’ relatives have publicly renounced their own family members.
So Kadyrov’s power relies solely on violence?
Kadyrov’s power is propped up by three pillars: the Kremlin’s money, the Kremlin’s army, and violence. All these elements are interconnected and interdependent.
Perhaps the most famous Chechen politician, beside Kadyrov himself, is Akhmed Zakayev, the former Prime Minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in exile, who took an active role in the First and Second Chechen Wars. Does he still have supporters in the republic?
Officially, in Russia, Zakayev is not a terrorist. But (if he returned to the Russian Federation), he could be imprisoned on a trumped-up case or simply murdered [On October 6, 2022, the Department of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation on Chechnya opened a criminal case against Zakayev on the basis of ‘the creation of a terrorist community’ - note by WAW]. As for support, it’s difficult to say. I think that, in Chechnya, people will support anyone as long as it’s not Kadyrov or another one of Putin’s stooges. But it’s worth noting that the Russian opposition isn’t trusted in Chechnya either.
What’s the mood at the moment among the Chechen opposition? What do you think the future has in store for Chechnya? Will the republic secede from the Russian Federation if Putin’s regime collapses, or could a new settlement be reached?
At the moment, people are depressed. They are still living within the paradigm and psychological frameworks of war. In fact, the war has gone underground in Chechnya: dissidents are tortured, kidnapped, killed, imprisoned and robbed. All this happens with either the tacit consent of the Kremlin or by its direct orders. This has alienated the Chechens from Russia even more. Putin and Kadyrov have done everything possible to completely cut off Chechnya from Russia. In my estimation, if there’s any opportunity to do it, the active forces in Chechnya will insist on their independence, or demand to choose which country they are dependent on.
Will there be a war if Chechnya wants to secede from the Russian Federation?
There won’t be a war unless Russia starts it. Many people forget that it was actually Russia who started the war in Chechnya (in 1994) by disagreeing with Chechnya’s secession from the Russian SFSR. Without any attempt to negotiate, Russia sent in its troops as an ultimatum, and previously carried out terror attacks in Chechnya using its puppets. Russia always speaks the language of force. Look at the evidence: Ukraine, Georgia, Syria and so on, from 1991 onwards.
What would it take to convince people in Chechnya to remain part of the Russian Federation? Is there any way to peacefully reconcile, or is it already too late?
It’s important to understand here the reasons behind the Russian-Chechen conflict. Russia does not recognise the Chechen genocide committed by the Russian Empire during the Caucasian War in the nineteenth century, the genocide committed by the USSR through deportation (the mass deportation of Chechens to modern-day Kazakhstan in 1949) or the genocide committed by the Russian Federation during the two Russian-Chechen Wars (1994-1997, 1999-). It continues to glorify those who murdered Chechens while denigrating real Chechen heroes in every way possible. There still hasn’t been an effective and large-scale official investigation into the war crimes carried out by the Russian army in Chechnya.
The region itself has lost all its financial independence: the local economy and industry has been destroyed. Mass violations of human rights, committed by the Russian law-enforcement agencies, by the hands of ‘Kadyrovites’ [members of Kadyrov’s paramilitary organisation], are completely ignored. And in all realms of public life, from everyday goings-on to bureaucratic procedures, the Chechen language is being silenced. Meanwhile, the Russian language is enshrined, and its use is compulsory. Even surnames and patronymics are Russified. In fact, Chechnya doesn’t even have the right to its own flag or coat of arms.
The Constitution of the Russian Federation is a problem in itself, as it states that Chechens do not have the right to form their own state. It doesn’t contain the option to voluntarily leave the [organisation of the] Russian Federation via a referendum. At this constitutional level, the Chechen language, culture and traditions are not protected. If these fundamental issues are ironed out, it might be possible to speak about the future conditions for cooperation [Chechnya and Russia]. However, you need to bear in mind that Russia and Chechnya are completely different: military-wise, they are polar opposites.
Is mobilisation going ahead in Chechnya?
Mobilisation in Chechnya has been announced. But the army and reserves who fall under the decree and law [on mobilisation] have been [sent] to Ukraine since the very beginning of the war. The average estimate of the total number of Kadyrovites, that is, ethnic Chechens sent to Ukraine, was no more than 2700. Now there’s only about 1600 of them – all that’s left after the wounded and killed are taken into account. The people do not support the war, and they see it as exactly the same disaster that Russia brought to Chechnya.
The war itself forced Kadyrov to show his hand. It turns out that Kadyrov officially employs 15,000 security officials at most [the police and National Guard are internal troops]. In effect, then, he enjoys the absolute and unconditional support of no more than 5000 security officials. So we can scrap the theory that he has 20-30,000, or even 70,000, troops.
How are Kadyrovites treated in the republic? Not just his personal bodyguards, but the countless number of security and bureaucratic officials?
Everyone’s attitude is different. But they’re not positive. You see, a person can say to their boss ‘You’re doing great!’, so that they’re not making any problems for themselves. But if you look under the carpet, the reality is quite different: people blame the Kadyrovites for continuing the violence that the Russian troops brought over in terms of brutal torture and murders. The Kadyrovites are thought of as the ‘heirs’ of the trauma that the Chechens endured under the Russian army. And the attitude towards them reflects that.
In your opinion, what type of statehood would be the best option for Chechnya? And which do you think is the most realistic and desirable?
I believe that a parliamentary republic is the most suitable form of government for Chechnya. I maintain that UN and CoE [Council of Europe] rights must be upheld in Chechnya, so that Chechnya will not become like today’s Russia. In spite of everything that’s happened, a so-called ‘true native people’ [in Russia] insist on the existence of a particular ‘Russian’, ‘special’ course, that is independent from the way Asia and Europe have developed.
In my opinion, the path of negotiations, and the use of civil, legal mechanisms – the peaceful path – is one of the right ways to achieve any objectives. For example, a number of referendums, elections and interrelationships can only be mediated through the UN, OSCE and PACE. Chechnya has never chosen war. Russia has always brought war to Chechnya throughout history and shifted the responsibility to the entire nation: we ourselves are to blame that we are killed, deported and robbed by the Kremlin. The propaganda machine is using the same tactics in the war against the Ukrainians. And even now, because of Russia, Chechnya is being drawn into the war in Ukraine. I believe that in the future, Chechnya needs to be part of a commonwealth with peace-loving countries.