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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: September 2, 2016

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Critic of Chechen Leader Kadyrov Has Gone Missing, Joining Long List of Disappeared
Ruslan Martagov, a long time vocal critic of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and previous Chechen leaders, has been missing for more than 24 hours after being summoned for a meeting with Chechen officials, Vyacheslav Ismailov, a military commentator for Novaya Gazeta, reports.

Yesterday, September 1, Martagon, age 66, an independent journalist and former press official in previous Chechen governments received a phone call from the office of Jambulat Umarov, head of the Chechen Republic's Ministry for National Policy, External Liaison, Print and Information.

Martagov spent the morning at the Ministry but his relatives don't know why he was called or what he did there. He returned home at 2:00 pm, but then was summoned again for a meeting at the Ministry. There, he sat next to Said-Selim Abdulmuslimov, deputy minister, who had a conversation with him after the meeting. Then Abdulmuslimov later told his relatives that he supposedly called a taxi for Martagov himself.

Martagov called his family for the last time from that taxi, saying he was headed home. But he never got there. Neither of his two mobile phones are now answering. His relatives intend to report him missing to the police in Grozny and Moscow. They have already called the Chechen FSB for help. They fear Ruslan may have become the latest victim of a wide-spread campaign to suppress dissent in Chechnya which has already involved dozens of disappearances, as Memorial Human Rights Center and Human Rights Watch have recently reported.

Critic of Both Anti-Moscow and Pro-Moscow Chechen Regimes

In Chechnya as well as Moscow, Martagov is know as an critical journalist and political commentator, one of the last consistent critics of Chechnya. He was in opposition to Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Soviet Air Force general and first president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria who was appointed president in 1991 but who was ultimately crushed by Russian forces. In 1993, Dudayev's prosecutor opened a case against Martagov, accusing him of an attempt to overthrow the government and declared him "enemy of the people." Dudayev then later abandoned the presidential palace in 1994 after the bombing of Grozny and led resistance to Russia, until he was assassinated by Russian reconnaissance aircraft in 1996 by two laser-guided missiles while using his satellite phone.

In 1995, Martagov was appointed head of the press service of the next Chechen president, Doku Zavgayev, and in 1996, made acting minister of print and information. But after the Khasavyurt Agreement between Russia and the Chechen resistance in August 1996 and the restoration of Ichkeria, Martagov left Chechnya.

Then some time later he headed the press service again under Nikolai Koshman and received an apartment in Moscow, but he spent most of his time in his native village of Znamenskoye in Nadterechny District of Chechnya. 

All the years of Kadyrov's rule, Martagov has been a public critic, and was often on talk shows due to his role of one of the few outspoken Chechens. In his most recent statements, he condemned Kadyrov's practice of humiliating critics, such as an ordinary villager who criticized lack of road construction and was publicly pilloried and had his home torched, and then finally apologized. Martagov also criticized attacks on human rights monitors and journalists. 

Martagov also criticized the Kremlin for supporting Kadyrov, notably in the "construction projects of the century" such as a skyscraper named "Akhmat-Tower" for Kadyrov's father, when people lived in poverty.

The Chechen government had responded with advice, threats and even negative articles against him in the official press.

Crackdown on Dissident Chechen Elections and Historians 

Earlier this year, Yelena Milashinova of Novaya Gazeta reported that Chechen intellectuals who had gone missing after criticizing Kadyrov were finally released after an "educational chat."

In April, two Russian writers and historians, Rizvan Ibragimov and Abubakar Didyev disappeared after some unidentified law-enforcers came for them in their homes. 

On March 31, Khuseyn Betelgeriyev, a well-known bard and member of the Union of Writers of Chechnya was kidnapped in the evening by two unidentified men in a car, one of whom was in the uniform of the Chechen spetsnaz. His wife reported him missing to the police on April 2. 

When Caucasian Knot published the story of his abduction, the Chechen human rights activist Kheda Saratova, known for her cooperation with Chechen officials, tried to discount it in a Facebook post, saying he was fine, and that he just "had decided to be alone for awhile and had turned off his phone."

But the next day, she contradicted herself and admitted he was kidnapped and also announced that Betelgiriyev had disappeared.

One of Belegiriyev's best known ballads has lyrics based on a saying of Zelimkhan Yandarbieyv, the second president of Chechnya, and Betelgerieyv did not hide his political sympathies, which had led to his dismissal from Chechen State University.

On April 5, a clip with Ibragimov and Didyev showed up in Kadyrov's Instagram. It showed a meeting of "representatives of Chechen intelligentsia and clergy" which Kadyrov himself chaired:
"I met with writers and scholars of the Chechen Republic. We discussed the state of affairs in the world of the Academy of Sciences of the Chechen Republic and the Union of Writers. It's very nice that scholars and the creative intelligentsia are working productively..."

Meanwhile, participants of the meeting said with concern that certain pseudo-intellectuals are putting out brochures and books distorting the history of Islam, information about the Chechen people from ancient times to our days. They cited above all Rizvan Igragimov and Abbubakar Didyev, who have published books with print runs of many thousands,  actually pursuing the goal of blackening religion, and provoking international dislike. Such evaluations were given by Islamic scholars Adam Shakhidov, Magomed Khitanayev, Academician Supyan Magomadov, Kanta Igragimov, academician, chairman of the government of the Chechen Republic, and others. The inconsistency in the works of Rizvan Ibragimov and Abubakar Ididyev have been proven through a commission's comprehensive analysis of tests and by free discussion. Both authors themselves publicly noted that their books are not established on a scholarly basis. These "theologians" do not have even an elementary religious education. They apologized before the scholarly community and clergy of Chechnya."
That night, Ibragimov and Didyev returned home. Ibragimov then wrote a somewhat confusing post on his Facebook page:
I...Rizvan Ibragimov, spend the last four days from the night of the 1st to the 2nd of April at the Oktyabrsky District Police Precinct in Grozny. No one kidnapped me, but I was held for fear that I may go into hiding. Today there were discussions with the headed of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov after which Abubakar Didiyev and I were released. No forceful measures were used against us...I express enormous gratitude toward all those who were worried about us."
Igragimov did not say where he was on April 3 and 4th, and later deleted his Facebook post.

Regarding Betelgeriyev, Heda Saratova posted a statement on Facebook that after hearing his daughter's testimony, she and a lawyer were working on his case but declined to say anything about it "until he, too, is shown on television." She said he hoped he would be home soon.

All the detainees had their computers confiscated and social media accounts either hacked or opened because they had to provide the passwords. 

Novaya Gazeta believes that the two writers' detention was caused by their trip to Iran, which they made at the invitation of Tehran University. There, they compared the Shiite version of Islam practiced by the Iranian government with the Sunni version practiced in Chechnya. Abragimov criticized the cult of Kunta-Hadji Kishiyev as well as religious figures among the Chechen muftis, and also the practice of "temporary marriages" when Chechen men take a third, fourth or more young girls as wives, then later return them to their parents.

These topics are explosive for Kadyrov, who himself is a devotee of Kunta-Haji, a 19th-century North Caucasus Sufi prophet, pacifist and secularist known as a mystic and founder of a branch of Sufism called Zikrism which stresses nonviolence and passive resistance.

Milashina says ordinary Chechens minimize their contacts with clergy and are fearful of saying one wrong word and ending up disappeared. Memorial Human Rights Center documented 24 disappearances in just one 3-month period in 2015. Human Rights Watch has issued a report this week on what they describe as a "pre-election crackdown" in advance of the September 18 elections.

Kadyrov doesn't just punish critics by arresting or torturing them. He also puts them on TV and makes them recant, as he did a social worker who had dared to upload a video complaint to Whatsapp. Her husband appeared with her on TV with the parliamentary speaker Magomed Daudov and Kadyrov himself, and said he should have kept a better eye on her.

A Russian politician who criticized Kadyrov in January later made a "profound apology" for the media.

The Chechen villager had called in to President Vladimimr Putin's TV marathon in April accused local authorities of extortion and poor living conditions. His home was torched and soon he found himself apologizing profusely on TV, and Kadyrov forgave him, claiming others had put him up to this evil deed.

Are Bastrykin and Chechen Law-Enforcers at Odds? 

The outcome of the case of Betelgeriyev is important to see as an indication of the frequently-reported conflicts between the Investigative Committee of Russia (SKR) in Moscow, headed by Aleksandr Bastrykin, and the SK and other law-enforcement agencies of Chechnya.

In this case, the local branch of the SKR in Chechnya unexpectedly intervened in the case of Betelgeriyev after Caucasian Knot published his case. This was unusual for this office, which usually ignored such publications. Milashina writes that this may have been due to the fact that Gen. Sergei Devyatov, the long-time head of the SK in Chechnya, a loyal follower of Kadyrov, resigned from his post early this year. This had been the basis for a long-time feud with Bastrykin. Maj. Gen. Sokolov was made acting director in his place in April. 

Ultimately, Betelgeriyev returned home, Caucasian Knot reported April 11. Neither he nor his relatives wanted to comment about his ordeal or explain where he had been held, and the press has not covered him since.

Meanwhile, whatever temporary victory Bastrykin or his locally-installed representatives had in Chechnya, it may have been reversed. We know Bastrykin has faced humiliations in the past. Recently, Kadyrov showed on his Instagram that during a trip to Moscow where he also met Putin, Bastrykin gave him an award and praised him for his observance of human rights.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick