Unexpectedly, the world is once again talking about Chechnya, a republic within the Russian Federation. During the Russo-Chechen wars of the 1990s and 2000s, televisions buzzed with footage of the worst terror attacks committed against Russia by Chechen secessionists and Islamic extremists. The most tragic of these attacks was against a secondary school in the town of Beslan, where 30 Chechen terrorists held over 1,000 people, mostly children, hostage and resulted in 334 deaths after a three-day siege. But following the rise of Vladimir Putin, the use of overwhelming force by the Russian military and pro-Kremlin Chechen militants, systematic torture of opponents and the Putin administration’s selection of Akhmat Kadyrov (replaced by his son Ramzan Kadyrov in 2007) as president of the Chechen Republic, the conflict has been reduced to a relatively contained insurgency in the North Caucasus. The rare moments that Chechnya has reappeared in Western headlines over the past decade have been when prominent Russian dissidents have been assassinated. The assassinations of Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent journalist, and Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician and former deputy prime minister, were both traced back to Chechnya and it is widely presumed that Ramzan Kadyrov had a hand in them. But discussion of these events, outside of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, was mostly confined to foreign policy and human rights circles.
This has changed with recent reports that six detention centers are operating in Chechnya where LGBTQ residents of the republic are imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Liberals I have known to never have an interest in Russia are suddenly reposting numerous articles on Chechnya on social media. Even long time opponents of gay rights, including Republican politicians like Marco Rubio, have taken the floor in Congress to publicly condemn Ramzan Kadyrov and Putin’s unwillingness to act against him. 50 members of Congress have signed a letter imploring Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to publicly pressure the Russian government to properly investigate these reported human rights violations.
This response has been admirable, although it is saddening that only now after a decade of living under Ramzan Kadyrov’s murderous dictatorship, Chechnya is finally getting more mainstream attention. As for why only now is Chechnya getting so much mainstream attention, it boils down to a couple of factors. One, this is a shocking crime. The murders of members of the LGBTQ community in detention centers evokes the historical trauma of gay people being among those marked for death in Nazi concentration camps. Two, in this period of heightened tension between Russia and the U.S. and its NATO allies, there is a greater receptiveness in the mass media to stories of human rights violations in the Russian Federation.
Noble sentiments and political opportunism coexist in the banding together of American politicians in the house to call for pressure on the Russian government to stop the persecution of the Chechen LGBTQ community. I believe that they genuinely want to stop this atrocity while also implying that Russia is not a country the Trump administration should be cozying up to. On the part of the Democrats, this adds fuel to the fire of the investigation of the Russian hacks of the DNC. This is perhaps less necessary than it was previously before the Trump administration ordered missile strikes in Syria and consequently cooled U.S.-Russia relations.
However, critics are mistaken to think that Putin has the ability to easily end the torture and execution of LGBTQ Chechens. The Russian government has left Chechnya alone because it remains haunted by the brutality of the first and second Chechen wars. In fact, in the first Chechen War, the fledgling Russian Federation actually was defeated by the Chechen Rebels and that national shame has influenced many subsequent policy decisions. It can be assumed that the last thing Putin wants is to go through yet another Chechen war, especially while engaged in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and so is quite willing to ignore substantial amounts of international outcry for the sake of stability.
Furthermore, even if the Russian government did resolve to reign in or depose Kadyrov, it would be a monumental undertaking. Kadyrov has a military force estimated from 20,000 to 30,000 militiamen who have pledged loyalty to him personally, so the Russians could only depose him with military force if they were willing to accept a war. The other option, cutting the federal funds that Kadyrov used for social services for the republic and to redistributes to those loyal to him, would deeply destabilize the republic and give renewed life to the terrorist insurgency. Putin is a very strong leader, but contrary to Western misperceptions, he is not omnipotent, and so we in the international community must find ways to help the Chechen LGBTQ community beyond simply calling for Russian federal intervention.
The international community should donate money to human rights groups in the Russian Federation such as the Russian LGBT Network, which has already helped LGBTQ Chechens flee and find sanctuary elsewhere in Russia or abroad. I encourage everybody to consider donating to them at this link: https://www.lgbtnet. org/en/endonate. In conjunction with this fundraising, the international community needs to exert pressure to make sure that these NGOs are protected from repression by the Russian government, which has in the past put in place legislation restricting the rights of LGBTQ Russians and has regularly impeded the work of NGOs by classifying them as foreign agents. These Federation-wide policies, unlike making forays into the internal affairs of Chechnya, is something that Putin’s Kremlin can actually substantially change. Furthermore, these human rights violations should be considered by international bodies such as the International Criminal Court and the European Court of Human Rights to translate international condemnation into actual legal directives for Russia to stop the persecution of LGBTQ Chechens. These directives can and probably will be ignored, but perhaps as Chechnya continues to bring international humiliation after international humiliation upon Russia, the Kremlin will eventually decide that it is worth the risk to replace him. Until then, we must continue to raise our voices in protest and not make the mistake of forgetting Chechnya again.