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Putin's 'foot soldier' Kadyrov threatens critics

The conflict between Ramzan Kadyrov and Kremlin opponents has been escalating. The notorious Chechen leader branded critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin as "enemies of the people" - and hasn't stopped there.

A spectacular demonstration of power was staged in Grozny on Friday. The Chechen government rounded up people from all over the Caucasus republic to show their support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. According to organizers, more than a million people gathered in the Chechen capital. As the entire population of the autonomous Russian republic consists of 1.3 million people, this would seem to indicate that every adult in the country took part in the event in Grozny.

Earlier on, Kadyrov had received support from prominent Russian artists. They were photographed holding a sheet of paper on which was written: "#Kadyrov is a Russian patriot." The photos were distributed on social networks.

The 39-year-old was obviously in dire need of this type of solidarity. In the days before, Kadyrov had in fact become involved in an unprecedented conflict with representatives of liberal opposition groups who had dared to criticize him and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The verbal sparring got tougher and tougher, recalling the rhetoric of the 1930s, when mass terror against dissidents spread under the Soviet dictator Stalin. Kadyrov railed against "enemies of the people" who, in his opinion, should be severely punished. Oppositionists felt these comments were a "direct threat."

Russland Demonstration in Grosny

One million people were claimed to have gathered in Grozny to show support for Putin and Kadyrov

Putin critics' lives in danger

Above all, critics accuse Kadyrov and Putin of human rights violations. The simmering conflict escalated a week and a half ago. During an appearance in front of journalists in Grozny on January 12, Kadyrov insulted Chechen opposition groups, calling them "traitors" who, together with the West, had been causing harm to the Russian state. He believes that opposition figures who are not in parliament should be put on trial.

Some Russian intellectuals, including human rights activists, writers and historians, signed an on open letter demanding Kadyrov's resignation. "The goal of this appeal was to call Kadyrov to order," said Igor Kalyapin, head of the human rights organization Committee Against Torture (CAT) from Nizhny Novgorod and one of the signatories, adding, "Putin is the only one who can do that."

DW partner threatened

Kadyrov calls himself Putin's "foot soldier" - a term he often repeats. He has sworn he will show no mercy to Russia's enemies. The great danger of Kadyrov's comments about "enemies of the people," says Kalyapin, lies in the fact that extremists in Russia may view the comments as an instruction to act.

On Thursday, the human rights organization Amnesty International asked Russian leaders to address Kadyrov's threats against opposition groups and representatives of civil society. But Kadyrov instead took the rants up a notch: He called his critics "jackals" and offered them treatment in a psychiatric institution. He mentioned many media outlets by name, including the Moscow-based television station, Dozhd, one of DW's partners.

Putin's Russia 'begins in Chechnya'

Putin has not yet made a public statement on Kadyrov. On Wednesday, his press spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded rather cautiously by saying that one should not blow this out of proportion. Kadyrov was talking about groups that are willing to break laws, according to Peskov.

In an unparalleled career, Kadyrov has risen from warrior to influential politician. In the 1990s, he took up arms against Russian troops for Chechen independence. In the late 1990s, he and his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, changed sides and swore allegiance to the government in Moscow. His father was elected Chechen president, but later assassinated in an attack, allowing his son to move up to the position of deputy prime minister and later, president of Chechnya.

Ramzan Kadyrov's supporters praise him for having created stability in the republic, which had been devastated by wars. But human rights activists accuse him of having established a reign of terror. Clues to the murders of well-known Russians like the journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov 2015 can be traced back to Chechnya.

The Russian journalist Oleg Kashin describes Chechnya as a "terrible kingdom" and a lawless place. He says Putin is responsible for this situation. "Chechnya is the most extreme form of Putin's system of power," said Kashin. If you want to understand modern Russia, he says, do not look at the glitzy Moscow but instead at Kadyrov's Grozny: "Putin's Russia starts there."

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