Anti-gay violence in Chechnya exposes Putin’s weakness
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.
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.