Chechnya leader calls for war on Putin's critics

Maria Antonova
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Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov -- pictured here in March 2014 -- said three Islamic insurgents and two policemen were killed in a shoot-out following an attack on police in Russia's Chechnya region

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov -- pictured here in March 2014 -- said three Islamic insurgents and two policemen were killed in a shoot-out following an attack on police in Russia's Chechnya region (AFP Photo/MENAHEM KAHANA)

Moscow (AFP) - The strongman leader of Russia's Chechnya region, Ramzan Kadyrov, on Tuesday threatened to eradicate "enemy" opposition in Russia, raising more concerns about the fate of Kremlin critics and independent media in the country.

Kadyrov, who rules with an iron grip the North Caucasus region that was the scene of two separatist wars, penned a lengthy diatribe in pro-Kremlin daily Izvestiya against the critics of President Vladimir Putin, calling them a "gang of jackals" who "dream of destroying our state."

"We will save Russia if we don't spare the enemy," Kadyrov wrote, calling himself "Putin's foot soldier" and offering to put the opposition in a Chechen asylum where "there won't be a shortage of injections."

The latest broadside by former rebel Kadyrov -- accused by human rights groups of overseeing torture, extrajudicial executions and corruption -- came after he last week called liberal independent media "enemies of Russia" that seek to sow "chaos" in the Caucasus and beyond.

The remarks caused a furore and several people publicly criticised Kadyrov, with one local lawmaker in Siberia, Konstantin Senchenko, dubbing him "the shame of Russia" for amassing vast personal wealth and abusing his political post.

Senchenko later apologised, writing that he "talked to some Chechen people and became convinced in the authority of the leader of Chechnya," in comments that were interpreted by many as a thinly-veiled announcement that he had received threats on his life.

Kadyrov's outbursts have sparked an online debate, with supporters responding to the "shame of Russia" jibe with the hashtag "Kadyrov is the pride of Russia."

"The time has come when the Motherland needs wise and principled decisions" to reign in its enemies, wrote the speaker of Chechnya's parliament, Magomed Daudov, listing names of several journalists, critics and rights activists.

- Critics silenced -

The editor of liberal Echo of Moscow radio, which has been targeted by Kadyrov's recent rhetoric, said he is seeking to beef up security at the station.

Several people who have challenged Kadyrov's grip on power have been killed in the past, including investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya and rights activist Natalia Estemirova.

Chechens are also thought to be behind the murder of opposition critic Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down last February next to the Kremlin. Two suspects are reportedly linked to an armed squad answerable to Kadyrov.

Residents of the region that dare to criticise Kadyrov face a tough response, with one woman publicly berated by Kadyrov on local television for appealing an additional tax Chechen authorities take out of salaries.

After Russia's opposition on Monday announced a planned rally in memory of Nemtsov, Chechen officials said that they had received many requests to hold a rally in support of Kadyrov and against the "fifth column."

Russian independent media questioned Kadyrov's aggressive criticism, wondering whether he has been sanctioned by the Kremlin or is playing his own game to secure his position amid an economic crisis and ahead of legislative elections this year.

"Regardless of the reasons for the Chechen leader's media activity, it's easy to see the gravity of its consequences," wrote Vedomosti daily, warning that some supporters may view his article as a call for action.

One figure criticised by Kadyrov, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, said the Chechen strongman simply stirs conflict to convince Moscow he is in control.

"Kadyrov is interested in the growth of anti-Chechen attitudes in the country," he wrote Tuesday. "This creates instability and brings back memories of war, making his role unique."