Kim Jong Un wasn’t the only iron-fisted ruler to be granted an unlikely photo opportunity this week. On Monday the world awoke to Egypt’s choice of World Cup training location as Mohammed Salah, their star striker, was pictured next to Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruthless warlord in charge of Chechnya.
The images alongside one of world football’s biggest stars represent a coup for Kadyrov – indeed, the Chechen ruler is said to have personally dragged Salah out of bed in order to take part – but the fervour with which he has courted the Egyptian national team speaks to wider strategic interests that are at play.
Who is Ramzan Kadyrov?
Ascending to the Presidency of the Republic in 2007 following a brief interregnum in the wake of his father’s assassination, Kadyrov has been given almost limitless funds to achieve one task for Vladimir Putin: to stop Chechens killing Russians.
This has largely been achieved. Russians no longer live in fear of Chechen militant activity as that had done in the early 2000s. At least some of the Kremlin’s money (much of it is suspected of having been embezzled) has also been used to turn Grozny from the world’s most destroyed city in 2003 to a gleaming metropolis today. It’s hard not to be impressed with the transformation, particularly given the poverty of the North Caucasus at large. The Akhmat Kadyrov Mosque at the centre of town is one of the largest in Europe, skyscrapers rise triumphantly, and the roads are probably the best in Russia.
But human rights organisations are aghast at Salah’s decision (not that he appears to have had one) to stand beside a man whose human rights record is under extreme scrutiny. Journalists, human rights advocates and those suspected of being gay have a torrid time in the republic. In February 2017 there were widespread reports of anti-gay purges in Chechnya. Kadyrov responded to these accusations by claiming that there were “no gays in Chechnya”.
Pressing the flesh
Like Vladimir Putin, Kadyrov is careful to project the image of a sporty, masculine character that plays well to his people. Whereas Putin can be seen practicing judo, hunting or doing weights in the gym in stylised shoots, Kadyrov takes this to another level.
Indeed, Salah is not the first superstar to pose for pictures in his company. Kadyrov has invited a host of sportsmen to Chechnya to help bolster his macho image. He has been visited in Grozny by Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather. The latter, who visited in March 2017, was given a tour of the country’s best boxing gyms, telling Russian media the following day that: “To be honest, I am amazed by the conditions created in Chechnya for boxing and how everyone is doing it.”
Kadyrov sees association with these fighters as an opportunity to bask in their reflected glory, further demonstrating himself to be the ultimate Chechen man, embodying the ideals of traditional masculinity, of which fighting plays a great part.
In 2016, details emerged of a brutal MMA “youth” tournament in Grozny in which Ramzan’s eight-year old son knocked out his rival in the ring. This was widely condemned in Russia as being brutal and illegal, even by MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko, but Kadyrov hit back by claiming that this was Chechen culture. Two days later Emelianenko’s daughter found herself attacked on the streets of Moscow.
Kadyrov even uses the boxing ring to make political points, publicly beating up his sports minister, Salambek Ismailov, for underperforming in April 2013. Until he was banned from Instagram in December 2017, Ramzan often posted videos of himself on the treadmill, or lifting weights. He also personally carried the Olympic torch through Grozny before the Olympic Games in 2014. The message is clear: in Chechnya, sport is life, and as such huge amounts of money have been invested in it.
The beautiful game
In particular, football has been targeted as an area in which Chechnya can show the world that it is again stable and ready to be a voice on the world stage in the aftermath of two drawn out conflicts. The new “Akhmat-Arena”, named after after Ramzan’s father, was built in 2011, with legends such as Diego Maradona and Ronaldinho present at the opening. The stadium has also hosted several Russian national team matches, in itself a potent symbol of Chechnya’s failed bid for independence.
Another famous arrival was former Netherlands international Ruud Gullit, who joined Terek Grozny (now Akhmat Grozny) as manager in 2011. However, he departed in acrimonious fashion after only five months in charge, seemingly clashing with the republic’s strict Sharia laws. Upon his departure, a statement from the club’s website read:
“President Ramzan Kadyrov is extremely dissatisfied with the approach of Ruud Gullit to his duties … he was invited not to nightclubs and discos but to work in a football club … Yes, we have no drugs, no indecent nightlife, which in the Netherlands and in Europe there is lots.”
These restrictions on alcohol and discotheques is evidence of the embrace of a hardline form of Sufi Islam under Kadyrov. Women dress modestly, men are bearded and alcohol sales are banned – although off-licences litter the other side of the border with neighbouring Dagestan.
Kadyrov’s support for Islam, whilst helping to further carve out a unique and autonomous religious polity in Chechnya, is also significant in that it increases Chechnya’s standing in the wider Islamic world.
Chechnya also plays an increasingly important role in the Syrian civil war, where Kadyrov’s soldiers, many of whom have been hardened by over two decades of fighting, are valuable troops.
Cultural ties with Syria are also expanding, in April 2017 the University of Damascus agreed to open a Grozny Campus and the Akhmat Kadyrov Foundation, a Chechen government-run charity, has pledge to fund the restoration of two mosques in Homs and Aleppo.
Kadyrov has exploited these ties to become one of Russia’s key envoys in the Middle East, regularly conducting foreign policy meetings and seeking investment from abroad, particularly in Egypt and the UAE. These states, with their authoritarian governments and moderate adherence to Islam, but not Saudi-style Wahhabism, has seen them draw closer to Chechnya. The invitation for the Egyptians to come to Grozny therefore, far from simply being a piece of propaganda showmanship, makes a great deal of sense on the political level.
Grigory Shvedov, editor of news portal Caucasian Knot, has spoken of Kadyrov’s desire to turn Grozny into a centre of the Islamic world. “He wants to be seen not only as the head of a region but also an Islamic leader, a caliph,” Shvedov said. “The problem for the Kremlin is that the more Chechnya develops as the religious centre of the Caucasus and Russia, the further it moves away from Moscow.”
Playing host to Egypt illuminates Kadyrov’s conflicting loyalties – Egypt are expected to rival Russia for second place in Group A. Dropping out in the group stage, though expected, would be embarrassing for Russia, and especially Putin. He will be forced to tread a delicate diplomatic line should this occur.
Egypt and Salah
As for how Egypt feel about their controversial choice of training base, their team’s general manager, Ihab Leheta, remained bullish: “We chose from the list FIFA gave us. If people have a problem with Grozny, they should speak to FIFA.”
Egypt, it must be said, is itself is hardly a shining beacon of liberty and tolerance. Like Chechnya it has a strongman leader with a track record of persecuting homosexuals and journalists. The Arab state is reported to have over 60,000 political prisoners. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won 97% of the vote in what many decried as a sham election in March.
Indeed the runner up in that election was a certain Mohammed Salah. Over one million Egyptians chose to spoil their ballots by writing the striker’s name instead. Perhaps this is why, having been a symbol of hope, Salah’s manipulation at the hands of unscrupulous authoritarians has disappointed so many.
Additional reporting by Kyle Walter