Francis Scarr looks at how football has become a key vehicle for the development of a personality cult in the Chechen Republic.

In April this year, after a protracted absence from international news, the Chechen Republic, one of the Russian Federation’s twenty-one nominally autonomous ethnic subjects, once again surfaced in the global media, cementing its reputation as one of the world’s most infernal regions. Allegations made by investigative journalists at Russia’s Novaia Gazeta that dozens of young gay men were, beginning in February, rounded up and shot in ad hoc detention centres, have shaken all with even a shred of concern for global human rights. Ramzan Kadyrov, the notorious Head of the Chechen Republic, hardly reassured the world in a recent HBO interview with his denial of the claims and subsequent acerbic comments that, “Such people simply don’t exist in our republic”, and that if they do, “Take them far from us so we don’t have them at home. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”[i]

What the West’s press has failed to notice however, is that this is only the most recent in a long list of heinous antics from Kadyrov. Since the end of the Second Chechen War in 2004, events in the North Caucasus republic have gone largely unnoticed by the outside world, but in Grozny, the republic’s capital, and throughout Chechnya’s rugged mountains and gorges, Kadyrov has incrementally asserted his sinister authoritarian rule, exploiting an unwritten deal with President Putin effectively endowing him with limitless power and legal immunity within Chechnya. Perhaps the most explicit evidence of this unofficial agreement was the 2015 assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. This summer five Chechen gang members were convicted for the killing, but no investigation was launched into its organisation. Kadyrov himself is widely rumoured to be responsible.

Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov pets a lion in his private zoo at his presidential residence estate in Gudermes. Photo by Sergei L. Loiko Los Angeles Times

Forming a rather flimsy public facade to the violence and patronal structures of Kadyrov’s republic is FC Akhmat Grozny, the republic’s only representatives in Russian professional football. Since its reestablishment in 2000 after the first Chechen war, the club has become inextricably linked with the political course chosen by Kadyrov, serving as an example by which President Putin can point to increased stability in the region. Carpet bombed by the Russian air force during the winter of 1994-95, Grozny has since been the beneficiary of enormous investment from the federal budget, and FC Akhmat has become perhaps the most visible aspect of Chechnya’s reconstruction.

Since the death of Ramzan Kadyrov’s father Akhmat in 2004, Chechnya’s leader has strengthened his hold over the republic, establishing an ultraconservative form of Islamic law and a cult of personality devoted to his late father. The name Akhmat is now borne by the Chechen republic’s highest honorary title, Grozny’s main stadium, a martial arts club, the republic’s largest charity fund, an unfinished 102-storey skyscraper, a square, street, park, college, secondary school, gallery and mosque. And, on June 6th, in the form of a post on his Instagram account (Ramzan stands peerless amongst dictators in his Instagram presence), he announced that Grozny’s football club would be changing its name from ‘Terek’ (a river flowing through the republic) to ‘Akhmat’, for it was “namely the First President of the Chechen Republic, the Hero of Russia, Akhmat-Khadzhi Kadyrov, [who] in the most difficult time for the republic, did everything to revive football in Chechnya.”

The gates of the renamed Akhmat Grozny, with Akhmat Kadyrov’s portrait far left. Image by Vladimir Varfolomeev, via Flickr [https://tinyurl.com/yaanb827]

‘Akhmat’ begun the new season with a home game against Amkar, an outfit from the Urals city of Perm. To celebrate the occasion of the club’s first competitive game with the new name, Ramzan invited a host of celebrities, amongst whom numbered none other than Ronaldinho, arguably the greatest footballer of his era. Without passing judgement on the Brazilian’s questionable moral compass, greed or sheer naivety, one can nonetheless acknowledge that this kind of extravagance has become an essential feature of the younger Kadyrov’s rule, a cynical exorbitance that seeks to conceal the murkier aspects of his regime.

In truth, whatever the reason given by Ramzan for this name change, the decision just amounts to an extension of the vicarious personality cult embraced since his father’s death in 2004. Despite renouncing his presidency of the club in 2011, Ramzan’s presence remains palpable. In March 2013, during the final minutes of Terek’s home game against Rubin Kazan, after Terek defender Rizvan Utsiev was shown a second yellow card, Ramzan took to the stadium tannoy and declared “Corrupt referee, you arsehole!” At a 2011 game between Terek and FC Krasnodar, on leaving the pitch after being shown a red card, the Krasnodar captain Spartak Gogniev was suddenly beaten up in front of the dugout by a group of Terek fans before managing to gain shelter in a room in the stand. Ramzan’s nephew Khalid is another example of the Kadyrov family’s personal stamp on everything in Chechnya. Since the five-foot-four winger’s first outing for the Grozny side in a 2010 Russian Cup game against Vladivostok’s Luch-Energiia, he has amassed a grand total of thirteen first team appearances. Hardly the sort of record that allows most professional players to sign new contracts.

The official renaming of the Grozny club is but the culmination of Ramzan’s personal involvement in Chechen football since his father took over the republic. As Terek, the team actually won the 2004 Russian Cup, beating Samara’s Krylia Sovetov thanks to an injury time winner from the journeyman Andrei Fedkov, at the time playing for his eleventh professional club. This episode perhaps most vividly highlights the club’s role as a political PR tool used for demonstrating political stability. The 2004 side was derided by Chechen separatists as ‘Terek Kremlin’ and home games were played not in Grozny, but rather in Piatigorsk, a town over 200 miles away, safely distanced from continued outbreaks of violence back in Chechnya. Moreover, the team was personally invited to the Kremlin by President Putin who congratulated the players on their role in bringing calm to the region.

In March 2013, during the final minutes of Terek’s home game against Rubin Kazan, after Terek defender Rizvan Utsiev was shown a second yellow card, Ramzan took to the stadium tannoy and declared “Corrupt referee, you arsehole!”

The incongruity of this positive attention from Putin is glaring when one realises that most of the side were only entering Chechnya for the first time when they attended a victory ceremony in the city of Gudermes. Despite the Kremlin’s visible pleasure at the victory, a satisfaction that became ever more evident with the presentation to the squad of wads of cash from the federal budget, the very fact that a group predominantly formed of ethnic Russian journeymen had lifted the Russian Cup representing a recently war-torn republic was nothing less than extraordinary. In its current form, the club had only been in existence since 2000 after being disbanded midway through the First Chechen War. In fact, the continued volatility of the situation in Chechnya came to a head just twenty days before the final with the assassination of Akhmat Kadyrov by a bomb on that year’s Victory Day celebrations. Following the final whistle, the Terek players unfurled a huge banner adorned with the visage of the late Chechen leader. The overachievement of the squad was only highlighted by the club’s ignominious relegation the following season. If only the whole cup run had not been so redolent of a PR sham, it could have been a classic footballing fairytale.

If one draws any conclusions from the fate of FC Akhmat Grozny, it might be simply that the course taken by the club offers observers a unique insight into the parallel course of Ramzan Kadyrov’s governance of the Chechen Republic. Whilst it seems unlikely that FC Akhmat will topple the likes of CSKA, Zenit or Spartak any time soon, last season’s fifth place finish in the Russian Premier League certainly raises questions about how FIFA and UEFA will react if faced with the decision of permitting Europa League or Champions League fixtures to be hosted in a city now saddled with allegations verging on crimes against humanity. A top three finish for Akhmat might just test the international federations’ naive insistence that politics and football are never linked.

[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/07/15/ramzan-kadyrov-says-there-are-no-gay-men-in-chechnya-and-if-there-are-any-they-should-move-to-canada/?utm_term=.5883984daa63

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