By all accounts, Chechnya is a legal black hole.
In the former rebel Russian republic, human rights monitors are murdered, women are terrorized for rejecting Islamic dress codes, and Kremlin-backed local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov acts out his personal fantasies as if it were his private stage.
And then, over the past two months, news seeped out of the closed and locked-down region of a mass pogrom against gay men, including torture, incarceration, and family “honor killings.”
Even for the Kremlin, that may have been too much.
This week an investigation team, headed by well-regarded detective Igor Sobol, arrived in Chechnya to examine the allegations of the anti-gay campaign. Should the investigation, which is still in its preliminary phase, move ahead, it could be a sign that Russian authorities are finally going to enforce Russian law in Mr. Kadyrov’s fiefdom, a nominally Russian but de facto independent territory.
Pressure on the Kremlin
It’s a horrifying story, first brought to light by the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta and stonewalled by the Kremlin. Up to 100 Chechen men were rounded up on suspicion of being gay. The prisoners were incarcerated, beaten, and according to Novaya Gazeta, up to 26 of them killed – in some cases by their own family members. Human Rights Watch today released a report corroborating the Novaya Gazeta scoop.
Russian authorities have grown accustomed to turning a deaf ear to awful tales of life in the rebellious republic, which it turned over to Kadyrov in 2009 in exchange for the outward appearance of pacification.
But the tide appears to have turned two weeks ago, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally raised the issue in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Shortly thereafter, the Kremlin authorized its human rights ombudswoman, Tatiana Moskalkova, to set up a “preliminary investigation” team to look into the allegations.
“The authorities are now checking the facts about this, though I’m sure the people doing it face all kinds of difficulties,” says Dmitry Muratov, editor of Novaya Gazeta. “I think this is a good example of how a process gets started through reporting. We published about this, which prodded the rights ombudswoman to go to Mr. Putin with the information, and then it was reported on TV channels. We will only feel satisfied when the people we wrote about are all safe.”
This week the Russian investigation team reportedly found only a destroyed building, covered over with debris, at the site of the camp where victims said they’d been held and tormented.
Though Kadyrov has publicly pledged to cooperate with the probe, he has also insisted the allegations are fake because there are no gay people in Chechnya. “Chechen society does not have this phenomenon called non-traditional sexual orientation. For thousands of years the people have lived by other rules, prescribed by God,” he told Russian journalists.
‘The price we paid for unity’
Kadyrov may have been the source of one too many embarrassing distractions for Putin as he tries to revive Russia’s image on the world stage. Even strong Kremlin supporters are cynical about the deal Moscow made to bring peace to Chechnya after nearly two decades of war, which may have stabilized and rebuilt the ravaged republic, but left it outside the sway of Russian law.
“The price we paid for unity of the country is a compromise, Chechnya’s special form of existence, in which the Russian Constitution does not fully function,” says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States. “Chechnya has been living at some distance from the Constitution, and still does.”
According to Russia’s LGBT Network, a non-governmental rights group, about 40 of the persecuted Chechens have fled to the relative safety of Russia, where they are being carefully protected by the LGBT Network and other supportive civil society groups. Efforts to obtain refugee status for the men have reportedly run into bureaucratic roadblocks in Western countries, particularly the US.
Russia has had its own anti-gay campaign, mainly directed against public displays of “non-traditional” sexual orientations. That has made life harder for the LGBT community, led to a rise in hate crimes, and invited condemnation from the West. But what is allegedly happening in Chechnya is so far outside the frame of Russian law and custom that it has shocked even some Russian social conservatives, and could prompt the Kremlin to finally act.
“The outcome of this investigation depends totally on the political will of the Russian authorities,” says Igor Kochetkov, chair of the Russian Movement for Rights of Sexual and Gender Minorities. “Right now they are checking the facts [preliminary investigation] before a formal investigation begins, and it’s clear that Chechen authorities are resisting all their efforts. The basic question here, to be decided, is whether Chechnya is part of the legal entity called the Russian Federation, or is it not?”