When reports surfaced earlier this month that a renewed wave of violence had been unleashed against Chechnya’s beleaguered LGBTI community, journalists and human rights activists were faced with the perennial problem in the Russian republic – how does truth come to light in a totalitarian enclave?
On Monday, January 14, the Russian LGBTI Network reported that 40 men and women suspected of being homosexual had been detained in the Chechen Republic since December, two of whom died in custody.
The network’s program director, Igor Kochetkov, said it was impossible to know the exact number of victims.
Tanya Lokshina, the Europe and Central Asia associate director at Human Rights Watch who has worked extensively in the Chechen Republic, told Polygraph.info that HRW has not yet been able to confirm the reports from the LGBTI Network, noting that “until HRW can talk to the victims or witnesses, they cannot publish anything.”
On January 29 The Russian LGBT Network appealed to Russia’s Investigation Committee to verify information about the latest outbreak of state-sponsored violence against the LBGTI community in Chechnya.
The network identified one of the detainees as Bekkhan Yusupov, while information on other victims was not forthcoming due to safety concerns.
Without verification on January 15, Polygraph.info was forced to put down as “unclear” the verdict on the government’s denial that there had been detentions of gay men.
But with Reporters Without Borders (RSF) last year placing Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov on its list of "Predators of Press Freedom,” can the truth see the light of day?
OSCE Verification: "Not a current mandate"
The problems are myriad.
When the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) rapporteur was tasked with looking into human rights violations and abuses in Chechnya from January 2017 to the present, Russia declined to assist in that fact-finding mission, leaving the OSCE rapporteur “to focus on all sources available outside the Russian Federation.”
The rapporteur released a new report on persecution in Chechnya, verifying past violence. The organization, however, is not yet investigating the 2019 reports, telling Polygraph.info “there is not a current mandate or opportunity to monitor the situation.”
For those with less institutional cover, the task is far more daunting.
Natalia Prilutskaya, Russia Researcher at Amnesty International, wrote that those who document attacks on LGBTI people “have acted with unimaginable courage, risking arrest, torture, ill treatment and even death if they are identified.”
This makes the task of gleaning the truth from fragmentary evidence a complex challenge and exceedingly dangerous for those within grasp of the republic’s leaders.
“The clarity and quality of information goes dramatically down because it becomes [exponentially] more difficult to get information and verify it. It takes longer and much more effort,” Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, Director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center, told Polygraph.info.
This trammeling of the verification process is clearly by design.
Lokshina said that the ascendency of Kadyrov came with a chilling effect, which culminated in the 2009 kidnapping and murder of Natalia Estemirova, who had been working in Grozny for the Russian human-rights organization Memorial. Afterwards, people who were already reluctant to speak out sought safety in silence.
“If you can’t protect your own,” they told Lokshina, “how can you protect us?”
The 2016 Attack on Journalists and Activists
Then came the March 2016 attack on a minibus carrying journalists and rights activists who were on a press tour organized by the Committee Against Torture, a Russian NGO, in Ingushetia near the Chechen administrative border. Six journalists were injured in that assault, during which their vehicle was set on fire.
"The attack follows a burst of menacing comments on social media and in the press... by government officials in Chechnya," a Committee to Protect Journalists’ statement said at the time.
Lokshina said Kadyrov “was at war” with the Committee Against Torture, which took on the most sensitive cases against Chechen security forces.
“They had encouraged journalists to travel to Chechnya,” she said.
Lokshina added that the journalists had “underestimated the level of hostility” from Chechen authorities, thinking the presence of foreign reporters would keep them from being “too nasty”.
That incident, she said, led many editors to ask: “Is the story worth the risk?”
An Activist's Trial: " Chechnya...forbidden territory"
This acrimony came to a head in August, when Kadyrov said the trial of Oyub Titiev, a prominent Chechen activist and local head of the Memorial human rights group, would be the last time human rights workers would be allowed to operate openly in Chechnya.
Titiev faces 10 years in prison on what Amnesty called “trumped up drug charges.”
That trial could have far broader implications for human rights workers in the republic.
“So-called human rights defenders have no right to walk around in my territory… I’m issuing sanctions against them. Let them walk around [here for now], let them come to Shali [to Titiev’s court hearings], to Grozny,” Kadyrov said.
“But once the trial is finished – no [more],” he added. “They’ll be banned from our territory because they get in the way of our people living peacefully. I’m officially telling human rights defenders: once the court delivers its ruling [in Titiev’s case], Chechnya will be a forbidden territory for them, like for terrorists, extremists, and others because they’re provocateurs themselves.”
Following an open letter from HRW, Amnesty International and the Dublin-based group Front Line Defenders to Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling Kadyrov’s threat “unlawful” and “intolerable,” Chechnya's minister for information, Dzhambulat Umarov, walked it back, saying “real” human rights activists would be welcome in Chechnya.
Lokshina says the fact that journalists were allowed to be present in Chechnya for the Titiev trial showed that the Kremlin “clearly has the capacity to rein Kadyrov in.”
She added, however that Kadyrov essentially rules Chechnya as his personal “fiefdom,” where “he is the law.”
Likewise, Sokirianskaia said: “Chechnya has turned into a totalitarian enclave on Russian territory.” This has had a chilling effect on reporting about human rights abuses in the republic.
“People are paralyzed by fear of retaliation for speaking out,” Lokshina said.
Kadyrov’s rule has further been underpinned by a cult of personality.
“Behind the glossy facades of the new buildings which keep springing up around Grozny, the walls of homes, shops and offices are crowded with portraits of Kadyrov,” said Prilutskaya. “It is almost impossible to watch TV or listen to the radio without hearing his name.”
One of those glossy facades, Grozny City Hotel, is where journalists reporting on the Titiev case have virtually been sequestered.
That makes it “easier to monitor people,” Sokirianskaia said, while Lokshina noted that Chechen security forces openly record journalists and rights activists via mobile phone when the latter are talking with their colleagues in public.
Reaching out to sources in Chechnya is even more problematic.
“[You’re] sitting in an ivory tour and you can’t see any of your friends because you don’t want to have any of them harmed or exposed,” Sokirianskaia said. “This makes human rights work extremely complicated.”
It is often pointless even to travel to Chechnya, Lokshina said because it “gets individuals, especially their families, in trouble.”
Sokirianskaia said the Kadyrov regime uses two mechanisms of control to keep the populace in check: “humiliation” and “violence.”
Humiliation: Televised Shamings
Lokshina noted that the former includes televised shaming, as in the case Ayshat Inayeva, a social worker who recorded a voice message on WhatsApp in 2015, accusing Kadyrov of neglecting the poor while living an opulent lifestyle.
Inayeva was forced to appear on Grozny TV, where she was castigated by Kadyrov, her husband and the anchor as she recanted her statements.
Lokshina detailed such cases in an article published by the UK-based Guardian newspaper in October 2016.
And while Prilutskaya noted that dissent can also bring other punishments, including “having your house burnt down” or being target of “fabricated criminal charges,” shame may be the most potent means of ensuring silence.
“This is an honor-based society,” Sokirianskaia said. “Public humiliation for many is worse than death … [Inayeva] is humiliated, but her husband [who cannot defend his wife] is nothing – he is smashed. People are afraid of this humiliation much more than violence. This will stay with you your whole life. It’s a small republic. They do this to keep people obedient.”
As for the latest wave of LGBTI violence, Kochetkov said the “persecution of men and women suspected of being gay never stopped. It’s only that its scale has been changing.”
And just as Putin made homophobia state policy to shore up Russia’s conservative heartland in the wake of the 2011–2013 Russian protests, Chechnya’s first “gay purge” was viewed as a means of protecting Chechen tradition from the “decadent” West.
“We don't have any gays” in Chechnya,” Kadyrov infamously told HBO "Real Sports” correspondent David Scott. "If there are any, take them to Canada. Praise be to God. Take them far from us so we don't have them at home. To purify our blood."
Chechnya's minister for information, Dzhambulat Umarov, similarly told Radio Free Europe: “Don’t sow the seeds of sodomy in the blessed land of the Caucasus. They will not grow [like] in perverted Europe.”
When asked if the conservative nature of Chechen society made it difficult to investigate claims of state-sponsored repression against the republic’s LGBTI community, Sokirianskaia said it was in fact “quite rare” for people to ask “why do you care about this?”
“Conservative Chechen men helped investigate claims. They don’t share liberal values about the LGBTI community but don’t want gay people to be killed and tortured in Chechnya,” she said.
“It is a homophobic society, and Russia is a homophobic society, but since the collapse of the USSR, there have never been any cases of organized violence against homosexuals in Chechnya – no campaigns to expose them. Before this, I never heard of cases of honor killings against men. [while, female honor killings are common] Maybe exceptional cases, but this is completely new. The regime is appealing to tradition, but they are inventing or creating a tradition. They are twisting and changing the tradition for their own needs,” Sokirianskaia added.
That flies in the face of Kadyrov’s claim that Chechen singer Zelimkhan Bakayev may have been killed in an anti-gay honor killing, and not by the state security apparatus.
This reimagining of Chechen culture extends beyond persecution of homosexuals in the name of tradition. Much of the Kadyrov regime represents a distinct break with tradition to create a mythology beneficial to the current power structure.
Russia Beyond, a web portal under the same media agency umbrella as RT, in a piece entitled “Seven years after the end of the war, is it safe to travel in Chechnya?” attempted to square Chechnya’s egalitarian past, when “nobody could become a single leader,” with its top down, cult of personality at present.
“Chechen society can be compared to the system that existed in the nineties. This love for the supreme leader can be seen as a subtle compensation for a lack of conflict. By this philosophy Putin’s rise to power enabled a stabilization in relations between Russia and the Chechen Republic. In this system the guarantee of success is their power, and they are a guarantee of stability and peace in the republic,” Sergei Markedonov, an expert on the Caucasus and associate professor of foreign regional studies and foreign policy at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, told Russia Beyond.
It is old authoritarian boiler plate: Personal liberties were traded in for security.
Likewise, Sokirianskaia said that on account of that egalitarian tradition, prior to Kadyrov there had “never been a monopoly of violence in Chechnya, complicating “Russia’s efforts to control it.”
“This whole system is new,” she said. “There is no popular legitimacy. Where can you get it? Tradition and Islam and a certain type of nationalism acceptable to the Kremlin.”
Meanwhile, traditional methods of self-regulation “have been crushed,” she said. “Something new has crystalized. I don’t know if it will survive,” Sokirianskaya said, speaking of the new power system in the Chechen society. As for Putin, just as Lokshina believes the Russian president has a power to curb Kadyrov’s war on human rights, Sokirianskaia believes the Kremlin is turning a blind eye, in part, because “Putin thinks Chechens deserve such treatment for what they’ve done to Russia.”
Sokirianskaia said that, “Putin believes it’s a vulnerable place for Russia. Kadyrov’s survival is dependent on Putin. There’s a very special Kadyrov-Putin bond that is not transferable, but he doesn’t care.”