Anti-gay vi­o­lence in Chech­nya ex­poses Putin’s weak­ness

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Daniel Baer Daniel Baer was, un­til Jan­uary, U.S. am­bas­sador to the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Se­cu­rity and Co­op­er­a­tion in Europe. He lives in Den­ver.

In April, in­trepid jour­nal­ists from No­vaya Gazeta first ex­posed an ex­ten­sive and grue­some cam­paign to round up, tor­ture, and, in some cases, kill gay men in the Rus­sian repub­lic of Chech­nya. In this week’s New Yorker, vet­eran jour­nal­ist Masha Gessen de­tails her bone-chill­ing in­ter­views with eight of the sur­vivors, now hid­ing in Moscow. When Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel stood next to Pres­i­dent Putin in May and called for Russia to bring the as­saults to a halt, she was do­ing what one would ex­pect of the de facto leader of the free world: she was stand­ing up for hu­man rights.

How­ever — whether she in­tended to or not — she was also call­ing Vladimir Putin’s bluff. While he plays the care­fully-con­structed role of an all-pow­er­ful au­to­crat, the truth is that his con­trol over what hap­pens in Chech­nya is more ten­u­ous than he wants peo­ple to be­lieve. A call for Putin to take ac­tion to in­ves­ti­gate and halt the hu­man rights abuses against gays in Chech­nya is sub­ver­sive: not be­cause it’s un­clear whether Putin wants to do so, but be­cause it’s not clear that he can.

Putin’s so­lu­tion to the bloody Chechen con­flicts of the 1990s was a deal with the devil. He traded away a good mea­sure of Moscow’s de facto sovereignty for a per­ma­nent end to Chechen re­bel­lion, ef­fec­tively ced­ing con­trol to

the war­lord fa­ther of Chech­nya’s cur­rent leader, Ramzan Kady­rov, in ex­change for the loy­alty of the Kady­rov fam­ily and its pri­vate army. In the early 2000s, Putin dis­patched the FSB to help es­tab­lish and con­sol­i­date con­trol for Akhmat Kady­rov (who had once been part of the Chechen re­bel­lion, but switched sides to be­come pro-Moscow). Once Kady­rovpère was in con­trol, the bar­gain was pretty clear: you make sure there are no prob­lems for Moscow in Chech­nya and you have free rein to do what you will. Akhmat Kady­rov was as­sas­si­nated in 2004, and, after push­ing aside other would-be con­tenders, his son, Ramzan, has ruled Chech­nya with an iron fist and gra­tu­itous, grotesque vi­o­lence for more than a decade.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Putin and Kady­rov has long been a sub­ject of spec­u­la­tion among both do­mes­tic and for­eign ob­servers of Russia’s in­ter­nal pol­i­tics. While some have pro­jected a quasi-pa­ter­nal char­ac­ter onto the bond be­tween the two men, oth­ers have noted a sus­tained ten­sion in their co-de­pen­dence: are they hug­ging each other tight, or are they wrestling to the death? It can be dif­fi­cult to tell. Kady­rov him­self has in­dulged in os­ten­ta­tious dis­plays of al­le­giance to Putin: wear­ing t-shirts with the Rus­sian leader’s face on them; chang­ing his own In­sta­gram pro­file pic­ture to one of Putin. But these have be­come so ful­some as to be am­bigu­ously threat­en­ing — like a mob boss’s pro­fes­sions of af­fec­tion.

Putin is known for his sanc­tion of state-spon­sored ho­mo­pho­bia, part of his care­fully crafted na­tion­al­ist cul­tural per­sona as a de­fender of “tra­di­tional val­ues.” This was the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind the so-called “Anti­Gay Pro­pa­ganda” law, passed by the Duma (Putin’s rub­ber­stamp par­lia­ment) in 2013, which banned any pub­lic dis­plays or state­ments that might so much as sug­gest a pos­i­tive view of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity.

Even so, I sus­pect Putin doesn’t want gays to be rounded up and tor­tured on his turf. He cares too much about his in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion to countenance that level of de­prav­ity with­out a sig­nif­i­cant coun­ter­vail­ing po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fit. But un­like the anti-gay pro­pa­ganda law or his gov­ern­ment’s stance against LGBT hu­man rights in­ter­na­tion­ally, Putin is not in con­trol of the anti-gay crack­down in Chech­nya: the anti-gay pro­pa­ganda law is an ex­am­ple of his power; what’s hap­pen­ing in Chech­nya is an ex­am­ple of his pow­er­less­ness.

In this re­spect it likely has some­thing in com­mon with the mur­der of Boris Nemtsov, the former Rus­sian deputy prime min­is­ter who be­came a leader of the demo­cratic op­po­si­tion and was slain in the shadow in the Krem­lin on Fe­bru­ary 27, 2015. Some in the West laid blame ini­tially with the Krem­lin (and it’s true that the Krem­lin has de­mo­nized Nemtsov and other op­po­si­tion fig­ures). But many saw Kady­rov’s hand in the Nemtsov mur­der: killing Nemtsov was both a ges­ture of loy­alty (“I did this for you”) and a threat (“see what I can do in your front yard?”). Five men — all Chechens — were charged with the hit job and were con­victed on June 29, amid claims by the sup­posed gun­man that a con­fes­sion was ex­tracted from him by tor­ture. Nemtsov’s friends and fam­ily cried foul, call­ing the trial a “cover-up” be­cause in­ves­ti­ga­tors have so far failed to iden­tify the mas­ter­mind of the crime.

Putin and his regime have made ex­ten­sive use of vi­o­lence as a po­lit­i­cal tool, both do­mes­ti­cally and out­side Russia’s bor­ders. Vi­o­lence or­dered, ex­e­cuted, or done with the tacit assent of the Krem­lin is one way that Putin re­in­forces his power. At the same time, vi­o­lence of po­lit­i­cal con­se­quence that is not con­trolled by Putin is nec­es­sar­ily a chal­lenge to him. The round­ing up, tor­ture, and killing of gays in Chech­nya and Nemtsov’s killing may both be ex­am­ples of the lat­ter.

John MacDougall, AFP/Getty Images file

Ac­tivists stretch a gi­ant rain­bow ban­ner in front of the Chan­cellery in Berlin dur­ing an April 30 demon­stra­tion call­ing on Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin to end the per­se­cu­tion of gay men in Chech­nya.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.