If you were accused of kidnapping, torturing and murdering hundreds of people in your country, what’s the first thing you would do? Snap pictures of yourself with baby animals and post them on Instagram, naturally.
Ramzan Kadyrov is not a typical president, but then again, there’s nothing typical about him. At 16 he led a unit of rebel fighters against Russian forces in the first Chechen war, fighting alongside his father, a Muslim imam. In 1999, the father-son team switched sides in the second Chechen war, supporting peace with the Kremlin. Kadyrov’s father was elected president of Chechnya but then assassinated in 2004. Vladimir Putin installed the then 30-year-old Ramzan in his father’s place three years later.
Putin has remained close with Kadyrov since the beginning of his dictatorship, and while Putin has caused leadership changes in neighboring Dagestan and has made attempts to improve security in the North Caucusus before the Sochi Olympics, it seems unlikely he will try to affect Kadyrov’s post. Mark Kramer, director of the Cold War Studies program at Harvard University, says of Kadyrov: “He has been able to emerge with essentially unchallenged control of Chechnya, and that’s what makes it difficult for the Kremlin to replace him.”
Chechen Islamist rebel Doku Umarov has threatened to derail the 2014 Winter Olympics, but Kadyrov will have none of that. “Before the Olympics, I think, I’m sure, that we will destroy him,” he told the Interfax news agency. “We search for him every day, but he is nowhere to be found.”
Kadyrov has been credited for maintaining stability in Chechnya. “For someone to be able to maintain quite a calm situation in Chechnya is pretty impressive,” says Kramer, “but it comes at great cost. He is a cruel, oppresive, tyrannical leader.” The 36-year-old used Kremlin money to build up the once-dilapidated capital city of Grozny, declaring the new architecture a symbol for peace that will hopefully attract tourists (much to his chagrin, a fire transformed a new skyscraper into a symbol of ridicule in April). The bearded leader has also vowed to make his republic “more Islamic than the Islamists,” essentially banning alcohol, enforcing Islamic dress code and supporting polygamy. He recently stated that women are their husband’s property and that he supports honor killings. (His wife and the mother of his seven children must love that.)
Then there are accusations of rampant human rights violations, including abduction and torture, that Kadyrov has difficulty deflecting. Considering that he once told Russian GQ, “I will be killing for as long as I live” and cited a 300-name “murder list,” many find his denials hard to swallow — especially when his enemies keep turning up dead. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya and human rights activist Natalia Estemirova were both shot and killed soon after they investigated Kadyrov, and there are many more people whom he and his followers, the Kadyrovtsy, have been accused of murdering.
Kadyrov insists he is innocent and has even looked to Hollywood to burnish his public image. He paid Hilary Swank, Seal and Jean-Claude Van Damme to attend his birthday party in 2011 and broadcast the celebrations. Swank fired her entire staff when she learned of Kadyrov’s human rights abuses. Oops! (Heard of Google, Hil?) This past spring he was still in the company of celebrities, posing with his tiny cat, Chanel, and Miss Elizabeth Hurley.
While he confronts the challenges of governing an impoverished nation and deflecting charges of brutality and corruption, Kadyrov has taken his PR campaign online and established himself as an unlikely Internet star. He blogs and tweets and has more than 184,000 followers on Instagram, the forum he chose when the ethnic Chechen Tsarnaev brothers were named as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. He posted in Russian that the brothers “grew up in the United States, their attitudes and beliefs were formed there [and] [i]t is necessary to seek the roots of evil in America.”
He carries a gold-plated gun and owns a private zoo where he lets his tigers loose on the exotic birds so he can watch them scream.
The Chechen leader wears tracksuits to official meetings, carries a gold-plated gun, and owns a private zoo where he lets his tigers loose on the exotic birds so he can watch them scream. On Instagram he posts pictures of himself playing with his children, snuggling baby chickens, deer and tigers, and lifting weights at the gym. And for anyone on Instagram who dislikes his way of governing, Kadyrov has personally invited them on an all-expenses-paid trip to Chechnya for a chat. (Not clear whether the tickets are round-trip.)
All of this social media is actually a benefit to Chechnya, according to the Kremlin human rights council, which recently toured the area and reported that Kadyrov’s Instagram feed helps keep local officials in check. Since Chechens can easily write to Kadyrov directly on Instagram, local officials are scared of getting fired and may control their behavior in anticipation of being called out.
Kramer said the people of Chechnya are aware their leader is “highly oppresive and intolerant” but that they are “willing to put up with an oppresive dictator in exchange for stability.” The Chechens’ recent experiences with two horrific wars make them wary of insecurity but not all have remained quiescent: Kadyrov has endured multiple assasination attempts. “He’s a very crude and uneducated person, but he’s very savvy about how to guarantee his own survival,” says Kramer. In 2015 Kadyrov’s term will be finished, but it is unclear whether Chechnya will be held to Russian’s legal term limits or whether Putin will allow the Chechen president to remain in power indefinitely.
Viewed solely through his Instagram antics, Ramzan Kadyrov comes across as a very young, laid-back, buff president with a fast-paced lifestyle, a love of children and an affinity for animals. “I am not a prima donna, but when people respect you, that’s always nice,” says Kadyrov. “If I were to say I did not like to feel myself a popular man, then I’d be lying.”
He sounds like any other narcissistic Instagrammer — except for the fact that putting a Lo-Fi filter on a personal torture chamber does not make it any less terrifying.
Why you should care
As instability rises with the North Caucasus’ leaders, Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov remains in power – in all of his human rights-troubling, social media-loving glory.