How a Chechen kidnapping exposes Putin’s problems at home

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is flexing his military and diplomatic muscles in a tense standoff with the West over Ukraine, projecting power and occasional threat in his quest for global influence. But the recent kidnapping of a 52-year-old diabetic in central Russia has made it clear that Mr Putin still has vexing challenges in his own backyard that require a deft act of political juggling.

The woman, Zarema Musayeva, was dragged from her apartment building in her slippers and pushed into a black SUV after men posing as police officers broke into her home and beat her husband, Sayda Yangulbayev, a 63-year-old retired federal judge from Chechnya, and her lawyer.

The men had said they should take the couple to Chechnya, more than 1,800 kilometers away, to be questioned there as witnesses in a fraud case, but it soon became clear that Ms Musayeva’s kidnapping was part of a hunt for two of her sons, celebrities Government critics who had infuriated Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov.

Now, three weeks later, Mr Yangulbayev has fled Russia with his daughter, fearing for her safety, and Ms Musayeva is jailed and accused of assaulting a police officer, although her lawyers say she “can barely walk”. Mr Kadyrov has vowed to “take care of the family” and said: “There is a place waiting for Yangulbayev’s family, either in prison or underground.”

The episode exposed – not for the first time – the pitfalls of the fiendish pact Mr Putin made with Mr Kadyrov, a ruthless leader who wields near-total control in Chechnya, a turbulent, mostly Muslim region in the North Caucasus populated by a population of 1.4 Million.

The Chechen leader’s brutal excesses are part of a series of domestic difficulties Mr Putin faces, even as he adopts an increasingly aggressive stance on the world stage, massing troops on the Ukrainian border and attempting to rewrite Europe’s security architecture.

Mr. Putin oversees an underperforming economy focused almost entirely on oil and commodities. He had to crack down on Russian dissidents like Aleksei A. Navalny and drive many into exile under threat of imprisonment. He has quashed media criticism and sought to rewrite Russian history by liquidating the most prominent human rights group in Russia whose work exposed Soviet-era brutalities.

Mr. Kadyrov offers Mr. Putin strong electoral support while weeding out separatist sentiments and political dissent in his region. In return, he is rewarded with a generous budget and the ability to rule Chechnya as his personal fiefdom and persecute with impunity those who disagree with him.

But the public nature of Ms Musayeva’s kidnapping — and the Kremlin’s tacit approval of it — has upset that balance. Family members recorded the kidnapping and almost immediately posted it on social media, appalling Russians who are angry at Mr Putin’s leniency towards Mr Kadyrov.

“Putin reached an agreement with Kadyrov and gave him the Chechen people as his serfs,” said Ilya Yashin, a Russian opposition politician who wrote a report on the Chechen leader in Moscow in 2016 after the assassination of another opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. The kidnapping was a power play that showed Mr Kadyrov was above the law.

The reaction in Russia has done little to dissuade Mr Putin from his single-minded pursuit of his strategic goals. But it has provided a troubling domestic backdrop. In recent weeks, The actions of the Chechen leader were a big topic in Russia’s independent media. A petition initiated by Mr Yashin to remove Mr Kadyrov as Chechen leader has garnered 200,000 signatures.

This was not the first time Chechen forces operated effectively outside their region – Mr Kadyrov’s allies are believed to be responsible for the murders of his detractors in Russia and western Europe. But this incident in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, just 260 miles from Moscow, showed that “the geography of these kidnappings is expanding,” said Olga Sadovskaya of the Russia-based Committee Against Torture.

Ms Musayeva’s sons Abubakar, 29, and Ibragim, 27, believe their mother was arrested because authorities could not reach her after fleeing abroad, fearing torture and even death.

Abubakar Yangulbayev, a human rights lawyer with the Committee Against Torture, is a thorn in Mr Kadyrov’s side about the organization’s work exposing human rights violations in Chechnya. It is widely believed that Ibragim Yangulbayev is behind the popular Telegram channel 1ADAT, which campaigns for Chechnya’s independence from Moscow and publishes materials insulting Mr Kadyrov and the government.

“This is a hostage situation with demands that certain people — me and my brother — return to Chechnya to be lynched by Kadyrov,” Abubakar Yangulbayev said in a video interview from an unidentified European city where he had sought shelter. “This is typical terrorist behavior.”

Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch said Ms. Musayeva’s forced return to Chechnya was “consistent with a long-standing pattern of collective punishment, in which the Chechen leadership prosecutes entire families, even distant relatives, for the alleged actions of one of its members.”

Chechen authorities pointed to what they say was a caustic rally on February 2 in the capital Grozny drew hundreds of thousands of people – an unconfirmed number – in a show of support for Mr Kadyrov’s crackdown on the Yangulbayevs. The participants verbally abused the family and burned photos of them.

“This is how Mr. Kadyrov shows the Kremlin that he is in control,” Ms. Lokshina said, referring to the rally.

Both brothers say they can help their mother more from abroad. Human rights activists say charging Ms Musayeva is a dubious way of keeping her in detention for at least two months, even though Russian law does not allow diabetics to be held in special detention centers.

In a hearing before Chechnya’s Supreme Court on Thursday, she asked to be placed under house arrest, saying, “I’m dying quietly.” Her request was denied. You face up to 10 years in prison.

The actions against the Jangulbayev family and their supporters met with only a muted response in the Kremlin. After Mr Putin met Mr Kadyrov in Moscow last week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said the two men “discussed economic matters,” adding that “issues related to the work of law enforcement agencies were raised,” without any elaboration or condemnation.

Prior to that meeting, Mr Kadyrov had branded Elena Milashina, a prominent journalist who writes on human rights abuses in Chechnya, and the Chair of the Committee Against Torture, Igor Kalyapin, as “terrorist accomplices” for their support for the Yangulbayevs. He said the Chechen authorities “always liquidated terrorists and their accomplices” and asked Law enforcement agencies why no criminal proceedings have been instituted against them.

Mr Peskov said the comments were the Chechen leader’s “personal opinion”.

Some critics interpret the Kremlin’s silence on the issue as a sign of the vulnerability of Mr. Putin’s government.

“This indicates that the federal government is relatively weak in the fight against Mr. Kadyrov, and this weakness is felt and understood by the Kremlin,” said Ms Sadovskaya of the Committee Against Torture.

Many analysts say Mr Putin simply doesn’t care about Chechnya’s actions, no matter how brutal, as long as no one close to him is targeted. Moscow fought two wars against Chechen separatists, from 1994-1996 and 1999-2009, in which more than 160,000 people were killed.

Mr. Kadyrov fought alongside his father against Russia in the first Chechen war, but both defected to the Russian side in the second and became influential leaders. The wars are now seen as a turning point for post-Soviet Russia, as the crackdown on Chechnya boosted Mr Putin’s image, facilitated his rise to power and effectively ended the period of openness and liberalism that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, became Chechnya’s first president but was assassinated in 2004. His son took over the role in 2007, shortly after he turned 30. Since then, his combination of coercive force and Mr Putin’s unconditional support has kept him in power.

He regularly wins more than 95 percent of the votes in elections. He advocates a conservative interpretation of Islam that represses women’s rights, and his security forces have orchestrated mass arrests of LGBTQ people.

“Chechnya is a classic dictatorial state run by a mad tyrant who only uses the law for personal gain,” said Abubakar Yangulbayev in an interview. “And every year Putin says that Kadyrov is a great guy.”

His brother Ibragim, who supports Chechnya’s independence, said he believed Mr Kadyrov was a “pure Kremlin project” designed to quell dissent from people like him who seek independence from Moscow’s rule.

“Putin brought Kadyrov to power to violently keep Chechnya in such a state that Chechnya wouldn’t even think about independence,” he said, which is why his henchmen “kidnap people who say what they think.”

Alina Lobzina contributed to the coverage.

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