Putin loyalist Kadyrov unleashed on Russian 'traitors'

Ramzan Kadyrov with his dog Tarzan Image copyright Magomed Daudov
Image caption The speaker of the Chechen parliament posted a picture of Ramzan Kadyrov with his dog Tarzan

Traitors, jackals and vile liberals are just a few of the choice descriptions of Russia's opposition emerging from Chechnya in recent days, in a war of words that threatens to escalate.

It began on Friday when Ramzan Kadyrov, leader of the southern Russian republic, labelled opponents of President Vladimir Putin "enemies of the people" and called for such "traitors" to be prosecuted for subversion, claiming they were working in league with the West.

Mr Kadyrov has now re-asserted his claims and gone even further in an online editorial for pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia.

Referring to a "half-witted rabble", he offered opposition activists the services of a Chechen psychiatric hospital to treat their "mass psychosis".

"I promise we won't spare the injections. We can do double," he wrote.

A boxer-turned-insurgent and now a self-styled "foot soldier" of President Putin, the man known simply as Ramzan is not someone many in Russia dare criticise openly.

'Shame of Russia'

Image copyright AP
Image caption Boris Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin in February 2015

Human rights groups have long accused him of presiding over widespread abuses in the Russian republic, and the key suspect in last year's shock shooting of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov beside the Kremlin walls had been deputy commander of one of his elite battalions. He was referred to by Ramzan as a "true patriot".

This time, the Chechen leader's comments appear to have touched a nerve.

Image copyright Konstantin Senchenko
Image caption Konstantin Senchenko posted a video with an apology to the Chechen leader

The most dramatic response came from a little-known independent politician in Siberia, who raged against Ramzan on his Facebook page as the "shame of Russia".

"Why don't you get lost?" Konstantin Senchenko told him, and let "normal, honest people" work for the good of the country.

But the Siberian was soon eating his "hasty" words. The next day, he apologised profusely on Facebook for his "discourtesy", apparently after multiple calls from Chechnya.

Cartoons of his sudden change of heart soon spread on social media, depicting him begging forgiveness with a gun to his head.

In an ultimate humiliation, the shamefaced politician was seen in a video clip apologising personally to Ramzan for his "emotional outburst".


Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ramzan Kadyrov (right) describes himself as President Putin's "soldier"

Activists on Twitter then took up the Siberian's insult with the hashtag #KadyrovshameofRussia.

Well-known opposition journalists followed that by filming themselves making fake, grovelling apologies to Ramzan "for existing".

One was filmed running on a treadmill with no trousers, just as a young Chechen man was forced to do recently after criticising Ramzan Kadyrov on Instagram.

Meanwhile, a group of prominent Russian liberals has begun gathering signatures demanding his resignation, and a St Petersburg politician has called on prosecutors to examine his statements for extremism.

But the backlash has only increased the tirade from Chechnya, where local politicians have been falling over themselves to express devotion to their leader.

None has outdone the speaker of parliament, Magomed Daudov, who posted a photograph of his boss holding back his huge, fierce dog on a leash and warned that Tarzan's teeth were "itching" - naming four well-known opposition figures whom the hound would presumably love to sink them into.

"Tarzan has become very frisky. We can barely restrain him," wrote the speaker in an Instagram post that attracted over 6,000 likes. "Just imagine what would happen… If it weren't for… Democracy."

'Authorities afraid'

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mikhail Khodorkovsky - once the richest man in Russia - now lives in exile

There is some talk that this is all a show of strength by the Chechen leader: a reminder of the considerable forces at his disposal amid talk of a power struggle between Grozny and Moscow.

But the Kremlin has remained tight-lipped throughout, prompting others to conclude that it more likely endorses Ramzan's actions.

Parliamentary elections are due later this year and, with an economy battered by falling oil prices, there's concern that opposition groups could capitalise on potential social unrest.

"It's a message to all of those who don't agree with what's happening," argues former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is now an opposition activist in exile and himself one of the obvious targets of Ramzan Kadyrov's ire.

"The authorities are afraid and they decided to frighten society," wrote Mr Khodorkovsky on his blog.

Another commentator has suggested that the Chechen leader simply wants to underline his loyalty to Moscow ahead of a wave of forced budget cuts and to ensure that the generous flow of federal subsidies to Chechnya does not stop.

Whatever the motive, the practice of singling out traitors is seen as particularly dangerous in the wake of Boris Nemtsov's murder.

A year ago, Putin loyalists were still beating the drum of patriotism following the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine; state TV was lashing out viciously at Kremlin critics; warnings that Ukraine-style revolutions would not be tolerated were rife.

Ramzan Kadyrov's latest outburst has resurrected the idea of an enemy within and the search for a scapegoat.

"The situation is very tense now," Mr Senchenko, explained by phone from Krasnoyarsk, pointing to Russia's mounting economic problems.

That concern is what motivated his own Facebook rage against Chechnya's leader.

"Some people really think there are enemies of the state and it's not clear what can enter their heads," he warned. "So we need to be careful."

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