Welcome to 'Ramzanistan': Under an Ironfisted Ruler, Chechnya Rises Again

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Maxim Shipenkov / EPA

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov speaks at a ceremony celebrating his 35th birthday in the capital, Grozny, on Oct. 5, 2011

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Eyes Are Everywhere
Grozny could be described as The Arabian Nights meets George Orwell's 1984. Over the four minarets, a 24-hour camera rides on rails suspended between the avenue and the gardens. The big round lens is like Kadyrov's eye. The Chechen leader keeps a close watch and makes all decisions: reconstruction, the latest models of luxury cars, the dhikr (a Sufi prayer ritual) and what women wear. In Chechnya, girls have to wear the headscarf starting at age 7. In neighboring Ingushetia, it's the opposite. The veil is forbidden in grade school.

Just like in Russia, this vertical power is protected by extortion and corruption. To get a job, one must pay. Leyla (to protect those interviewed, their names have been changed), a doctor, got a job at the hospital after paying $9,900 to her employer. A few months later, she was told that she was no longer fit for the job, that she was unskilled, badly dressed and would probably be fired. She believes someone else was ready to pay even more to get her job. Had she stayed, she would have had to earn back the $9,900 she paid, at the expense of the patients.

Fatima, a teacher, says all employees and students must make regular payments of a few hundred dollars to the Akhmad Kadyrov Fund. No one knows how it's managed, but everyone, from businessmen to maids, must contribute. It is not an easy task in a republic plagued by unemployment (59.6% according to the Russian Federation's Ministry of Regions). Finding a job is a hard task when there are no factories and no investments, just football fields, empty luxury hotels and half-built shopping malls and mosques.

"My family only thinks about one thing: getting close to Ramzan's motorcade when he throws 5,000-ruble [$165] bills. It's humiliating. I can't take this feudalism and this movie-set scenery anymore," says Rizvan, pointing to his flat-screen TV showing Kadyrov's 35th-birthday ceremonies complete with a concert, acrobats and laser shows.

Money is not an issue for Timur. He has contacts, works for the state and is developing a small business. "I only think about money. I want my children to go to the best schools, to have the best clothes," he says as he drives his Japanese SUV. But despite his financial situation and his contacts, he is afraid. "There is no such thing as business here, just extortion. Tomorrow they can come and take everything I have, lock me up and no one would be able to save me."

Though it's impossible to film and hard to measure, fear can be felt everywhere. Every person interviewed started off with the same warning: "If you quote me by name, I'm dead." To keep this fear alive, there's nothing like the gory videos that Chechens share on their cell phones. Kadyrov allows his thugs to leak footage of their violent punishments. Young Chechens are very fond of this sort of snuff movie showing torture, agonies, cadaver desecration and other barbaric acts.

There are not many people who make it out of Kadyrov's secret jails alive. Umar Israilov, who fled to Vienna, willingly talked about his experience in Kadyrov's custody, how Kadyrov would visit and torture prisoners suspected of supporting the Islamist rebellion spreading across the Caucasus. He tried to press charges in front of the European Court of Human Rights but ran out of time: he was shot dead in Vienna in January 2009. According to the Austrian police, his murderers, Kadyrov's men, disappeared. Lechi Bogatyrov, the suspected gunman wanted by Austrian authorities, is now the head of a department of the Chechen Interior Ministry. Russia has not responded to requests for cooperation on the case.

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