A Tense Game of Dominoes: The U.S., Russia, and Chechnya Stalemate

The United States’ volatile relationship with Russia is poised to become yet more tense in light of recent reports of anti-gay human rights abuses in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, notable for its courageous pursuit of investigative stories, reported on 1 April that at least 100 men had been detained in Chechnya ‘in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation,’ with three or more believed to have since died. In a second article three days later, the publication doubled down on the story, alleging existence of ‘concentration camps.’ One anonymous witness is quoted as saying, ‘They regularly brought me in, beat me, tried to shock me, mock me and humiliate me. They wanted me to give up the names of other gay people. After the beatings I would stay with friends for a day or two, wait for the bruises to fade a bit, only then would I go home. I’d tell my family that I’d gotten into a fight. It went on like that for two years.’ These reports, emerging after extensive investigative research, have been corroborated by people familiar with the situation, including Tanya Lokshina, the Russia programme director at Human Rights Watch and Ekaterina L. Sokiryanskaya of the International Crisis Group. And the head of the Chechen government, Ramzan Kadyrov, has denied all allegations in a worrying way: by flat-out denying that there are any gay people in Chechnya at all.

In the days and weeks since these reports have been published, the global community has been swift and unequivocal in its condemnation of these human rights abuses. Michael Link, head of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) released a statement on 7 April in which he said that, ‘The authorities in the Russian Federation must urgently investigate the horrific reports of human rights violations against allegedly gay men in Chechnya, as well as identify, prosecute and punish any known perpetrators.’ Also on 7 April, Mark Toner, acting spokesperson at the U.S. Department of State released a press statement in which he categorically condemns ‘the persecution of individuals based on their sexual orientation… [and urges] Russian federal authorities to speak out against such practices, take steps to ensure the release of anyone wrongfully detained, conduct an independent and credible investigation into these reports and hold any perpetrators responsible.’ UN human rights experts echoed this sentiment a week later, calling for the immediate release of all detainees as well as for Russia to ‘officially state that it does not tolerate any form of… discrimination or violence against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.’ And after considerable pressure from organisations such as GLAAD and Human Rights First, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley spoke up on 17 April, stating that the United States is ‘disturbed’ by the reports and calling for Chechen authorities to ‘immediately investigate these allegations, hold anyone involved responsible, and take steps to prevent future abuses… We are against all forms of discrimination, including against people based on sexual orientation.’
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The relationship between the Trump administration and the Kremlin has become increasingly fraught recently, particularly in comparison to the alleged fraternising and sympathetic statements made during Trump’s campaign. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Russia in mid-April, wherein he met with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, as well as with President Vladmir Putin, was an awkward affair and a harsh break from Tillerson’s previous friendliness toward the Putin administration, Tillerson having even been awarded a Russian state medal, the Order of Friendship in 2012. Haley’s statement and Tillerson’s tense visit, which saw the Secretary of State clashing with the Kremlin on Syria, alongside Haley’s previous indictment of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Secretary of Defence James Mattis’ tough-talking stance about Russia in his confirmation hearing, reflect a domestic motivation to butt heads with Russia. A return to a frosty relationship between the two countries is, in many ways, a return to normalcy after months of troublingly intimate ties, the suspicious details of which are only now unfolding. Nonetheless, the subject of Chechnya did not appear to be raised at any point in Tillerson’s visit, despite the near-deafening media outcry regarding the alleged human rights abuses. It remains to be seen whether the U.S., and Western democratic institutions at large, will choose to pursue any action aside from lip service condemnation when it comes to the issue of Chechnya.

Even if so, that does not mean that the Kremlin, itself a hotbed of problematic and unethical activity, will then take any sort of significant punitive measure against Chechnya or curb the abuses. Muslim-majority Chechnya, the denizens of which identify vehemently and patriotically as their own cultural entity independent of Russia, functions within a system of ‘Chechenisation,’ a doctrine put in place in the early 2000s as a practical answer to continuing Chechen terrorism against Russia, allowing the Kremlin to pass off considerable responsibility to its proxies in the Chechen capital of Grozny. With over eighty-five per cent of Chechnya’s annual budget coming from Moscow in efforts to keep the peace, Kadyrov is largely indebted to Putin, whom he greatly admires, for the opportunity to lord over the republic as a unilaterally powerful leader. The setup is hardly symbiotic anymore however, even or especially since Kadyrov takes his cues from Putin yet is en route to becoming a liability. As Joshua Yaffa points out in the New Yorker, ten years into Kadyrov’s leadership, Chechnya has become ‘Russia in miniature, a concentrated tincture of all its habits and instincts and pathologies, with Kadyrov worshipping Putin and consistently enacting the darker urges and impulses of the system that Putin has created… [yet] at the same time, Chechnya arguably serves as both a testing ground and a harbinger of what Russia is becoming.’ Ultimately, this ‘gay murder spree,’ as Atlantic Council fellow Maxim Eristavi has deemed it, is part of a longstanding system of state-sanctioned violence enabled and ennobled by Moscow’s support. And with torture, restricted speech, and a distinct lack of rule of law commonplace in Chechnya, Putin’s legacy as the mastermind behind ‘Chechenisation’ will hinge upon his unwillingness to admit the policy’s failure as a money-sucking, dangerous enterprise. ‘Now,’ says Yaffa, Putin ‘can’t abandon Kadyrov any more easily than he could abandon the narrative of his own rule.’

The U.S.-Russia ‘frenemy’ saga is always volatile, but given the current state of the relationship – particularly with the problem of Syria on the table – it seems like a safe assumption to presume that this relationship will continue to sour. Whether the Chechnya allegations will play a role in this is unclear for now. Less certain is the future of the Russia-Chechnya relationship, which looks to be an increasingly fragile détente, the terms and conditions of which appear overripe for a re-negotiation.

Kadyrov’s response to the international outcry not only categorically denied the existence of any homosexual population in Chechnya but also asserted that human rights in the republic have undergone massive improvement, accusing international media and organisations of taking aim at his government in a ‘massive information attack… using the most unworthy methods, reality is distorted, attempts are being made to blacken our society, lifestyle, traditions, and customs.’ Amidst a proliferation of uncertainty, one thing is clear: that tack is a familiar one. Blaming the media for being biased against you, Kadyrov? How Trump-esque.

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