In Chechnya, A Blood Feud Ends—and a Despot Digs In

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RIA Novosti / Kremlin / Mikhail Klimentyev / Reuters

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (center), Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov (right) and Head of the North Caucasus Federal District Alexander Khloponin (left) visit the Chechen settlement of Tsentoroy, June 14, 2010.

The men of gun-loving Chechnya, long Russia's most rebellious province, are not known for turning the other cheek. When a member of a Chechen clan is killed, even in a street brawl the vendetta can pass through the generations, obliging the men on both sides to take revenge until their elders have reconciled, or one of the clans is wiped out. So many observers were baffled last week when the region's most notorious feud ended without a fight.

The story began banally enough, with a traffic incident on April 14, 2008. The motorcade of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov was driving through the city of Gudermes when it ran into a convoy carrying a member of the powerful Yamadayev clan. The convoy did not yield, and a gunfight broke out. Soon after, Yamadayevs started getting killed.

On September 24 of that year, Ruslan Yamadayev, a decorated military commander and a former member of the Russian parliament, was shot ten times at an intersection in the center of Moscow. His brother Sulim was shot in a parking garage in Dubai six months later, and last July, a hitman came to kill a third brother, Isa Yamadayev. But the attempt failed, and the hitman, reportedly telling investigators that Kadyrov had ordered the hit, was sentenced to 8-1/2 years by a Moscow court. (Kadyrov has denied the accusations.) As late as May, Isa Yamadayev remained defiant. "Even if we're all killed, we are a big clan. Our deaths will not go unpunished," he told the Sunday Times of London.

But by August 22, something had changed. Yamadayev traveled that day with his mother to meet Kadyrov in Chechnya, and afterward told reporters that the two men had found "no reasonable causes preventing us from reaching normal relations." Confirming the peace between them, Kadyrov attended a memorial ceremony for one of the Yamadayev brothers. "I forgave Isa Yamadayev for his incorrect statements," Kadyrov told reporters afterward. "He lost two brothers. I feel bad for him."

The reasoning behind the truce has stirred a fierce debate across the Chechen community: Are the Yamadayevs plotting a trap? Have they abandoned their sense of honor? Did Moscow somehow force the reconciliation between them? But everyone seems to agree on one thing: Kadyrov has succeeded in pacifying all his rivals. "There are no more significant figures in Chechnya around whom an opposition can form," says Alexander Cherkasov, an expert on the region and a board member of the Russian human rights group Memorial. "Now all have pledged loyalty to Kadyrov," he says.

This is the culmination of a long drive to force all of the Chechen clans — there are more than a hundred — into line behind Kadyrov, who appears to have the unflinching support of the Kremlin. Over the years, the violent separatist insurgency has been pushed out of Chechnya into neighboring Russian republics, a development that human rights groups say involved widespread torture and summary executions committed by Kadyrov's men. Last year, Kadyrov also managed to turn the head of the separatist Chechen government in exile, Akhmed Zakayev, who announced last February that he was ready to return to Chechnya from London to "contribute to a long-term peace."

This announcement splintered the exiled government, leaving only a few dedicated separatists fighting for Chechen independence from abroad. One of them, Ilyas Musayev, told TIME in an interview last month that they would never surrender to Kadyrov. "But there is little we can do," he conceded. "His power there is absolute." (This week, Musayev could not be reached to comment on Yamadayev's apparent capitulation, while Yamadayev did not answer repeated calls to his mobile phone since Wednesday.)

Now, the only possible challenge to Kadyrov's reign will come from Moscow. But this seems hard to imagine, says Pavel Baev, an expert on the region for the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo. "He's totally defended himself from being removed by the Kremlin, because no one else can maintain order in Chechnya."

As a further defense of his rule, Kadyrov has made sure that the Chechen security apparatus answers to him. The only battalions independent of his rule were run by the Yamadayev clan, and they were disbanded a few months after that unlucky gunfight in Gudermes. At the same time, Kadyrov, a devout Muslim, has increasingly started to rule the republic as his own caliphate, with his personal militia of around 5,000 men at times acting like a Taliban-style religious police, harassing women for smoking or failing to wear headscarves. Kadyrov has even insisted that Islamic Shari'a law supersedes the laws of Moscow, even though he frequently pledges his loyalty to the Kremlin.

This means that for the foreseeable future, Kadyrov is likely to rule unchallenged, and Chechnya will remain a black hole of human rights abuses inside of Russia's borders. Even the international community has largely given up its criticism of Kadyrov's police state, seeing it as a lost cause, says Helen Krag, a European rights activist and sociologist who has studied Chechnya since the early 1990s. "Politicians are constantly telling me to forget it. To stop bothering with this place," she says. "And now the Yamadayevs have given up. I understand them. They don't want to get annihilated."