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Protests against the Kadyrov Bridge in St. Petersburg

Roman Goncharenko, Vladimir Isotow / jsJune 6, 2016

A new bridge in St. Petersburg is to bear the name of former Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov. Yet many citizens are against the idea. Kadyrov's controversial past is causing much irritation.

Russland Brücke in Petersburg
Image: DW/W.Izotow

It is one of the biggest protest movements that St. Petersburg has seen in years. Thousands of citizens intend to demonstrate at Mars Field in the heart of Russia's second-largest city on Monday night.

The protests were triggered by plans to name a city bridge after the former president of the Russian Republic of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov. The responsible city commission gave its approval to the initiative in late May, and a city government representative said that the body sought to "extend the hand of friendship to the Chechen people."

Controversial "Hero of Russia"

The protests are not about renaming one of the many bridges that span the Neva River and for which St. Petersburg is world-famous. The 120-meter (400-foot) bridge in question is new. It was built in 2015 and spans a canal on the southwestern edge of the city. It was inaugurated in early May.

The prospect of the bridge being named after Kadyrov has been causing fights for weeks. Activists have been collecting petition signatures since the idea became public and hope to persuade regional Governor Georgy Poltavchenko to block the plan. In a matter of days, they had collected more than 70,000 signatures for the online petition. Director Alexander Sokurov, who won the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, was among those who signed it. The liberal opposition party Yabloko, which has a large following in St. Petersburg, intends to push for a referendum on the issue.

Critics argue that Akhmad Kadyrov has nothing to do with St. Petersburg. Above all, they are irritated by his contentious past. In the mid-1990s he supported the separatists in the First Chechen War. Back then, Kadyrov, the Islamic leader of the region, called for "holy war" against Russia. Thousands of Russian soldiers died in the North Caucasus conflict.

Tschetschenien früherer Präsident Achmat Kadyrow
Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004 when an explosion tore through the VIP section of a soccer stadium in GroznyImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Bondareff

Later Kadyrov switched sides and helped Russian troops win the Second Chechen War. At the time, Russia's newly elected president, Vladimir Putin, appointed him acting head of the Republic of Chechnya. In 2003, Kadyrov was elected president of Chechnya. Yet, he did not remain in office for long. He was killed in a bomb attack in the Chechen capital Grozny in 2004. Putin posthumously awarded him the "Hero of Russia" award, the highest honorary title of the Russian Federation.

Kadyrov's son threatens opposition

Today, Kadyrov's son Ramzan rules Chechnya. That is another reason why the naming of the bridge is seen as a highly political act. St. Petersburg is Putin's hometown, and since taking over the Kremlin he has been counting on the Kadyrov family when it comes to Chechnya: first the father, and now the son. The war-torn republic was rebuilt with billions of rubles from Moscow. However, the successes of reconstruction were overshadowed by reports of human rights abuses, including kidnapping and murder.

Meanwhile, Ramzan Kadyrov has put together a very strong police force that answers to him alone. The 39-year-old never tires of proclaiming, "I'm Putin's soldier," and that he is willing to do anything the Kremlin asks of him.

Over the past few months he has repeatedly threatened opposition politicians and media outlets that dare to criticize the Russian president. Those who do, Kadyrov says, are "enemies of the people." The human rights organization Amnesty International (AI) has demanded the Kremlin react to the threats, citing the fact that they are similar to those made shortly before the killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.

Connection to the Nemtsov murder

The naming of the bridge is also particularly troubling in light of the February 2015 murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. He was shot on a bridge in Moscow, and his killers have ties to Chechnya. Currently, five accused perpetrators are in jail awaiting trial, while Russian authorities continue to search for the man who contracted the killing: a Chechen.

Tschetschenien Ramsan Kadyrow Präsident
Kadyrov's son Ramzan has faced constant accusations of corruption and human rights violationsImage: imago/ITAR-TASS/Y. Afonina

"Without the Nemtsov killing, the Kadyrov Bridge protests would not be so loud," Russian columnist Konstantin von Eggert told DW. He says that Chechen security services' ties to the murder of a popular politician and Kadyrov's public threats against the opposition "have brought the subject of Chechnya back into the public eye." Eggert believes that the "recommendation" to name the bridge after Kadyrov came from "the top."

Many opposition members are livid about the fact that the Moscow bridge Nemtsov was gunned down on cannot be named after him, but a bridge in St. Petersburg is to be named after Kadyrov. "I will be prepared to talk about a Kadyrov bridge in St. Petersburg when there is a Nemtsov bridge in Grozny," says city council representative Boris Vishnevsky, a member of the opposition Yabloko party. The prospect is impossible.

Defeating Gazprom

The activists' case against the "Kadyrov Bridge" is not necessarily a lost cause. About ten years ago, citizens won a major victory against an even mightier opponent: the energy giant Gazprom. The company wanted to build a skyscraper in the middle of St. Petersburg, yet after much protest, it was forced to find a new site - away from the historic city center. "When we took up the fight against the Gazprom Tower, everyone told us it was already a done deal," recalls the independent city council member Olga Galkina. Now she is collecting signatures against the Kadyrov Bridge. "We won then, and we will win again this time."

A previous suggestion to name a street after Akhmad Kadyrov, put forth by a city council member, also failed not long ago. Governor Georgy Poltavchenko spoke out against the idea in 2015, arguing that Kadyrov had no connection whatsoever to the city. Moreover, when polled on the issue, most citizens were also opposed to the idea. Activists are hoping for the same result this time as well.