All eyes on Ramzan Kadyrov as Chechnya hosts Egypt in World Cup

Chechen leader is step closer to political goal of being Putin’s link to Middle East with arrival of Egyptian team

The Tunisians were first to visit, followed by the Iranians, and then the Saudis. But it was the Egyptians, led by the Liverpool superstar Mohamed Salah, who snatched up the dubious grand prize: a World Cup training base in Chechnya.

Once devastated by civil war, Chechnya is now the focus of intense international scrutiny over its crackdown on political opponents and gay people in this region in Russia’s North Caucasus.

But the controversy did not stop delegations from the Middle East from lining up to tour the stadium that the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov built and named after his father, the same pitch where he once reviewed more than 20,000 camouflaged soldiers likened to his personal guard.

For Kadyrov, who has spent a decade building a pervasive cult of personality at home, playing host to a national side in this year’s World Cup is a step toward his foreign policy ambitions: carving out a niche as Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Middle East and the de facto voice of Russian Muslims abroad.

“We all know that our leader has a good relationship with Saudi kings, with princes, with the leadership of Egypt. We are happy Egypt has made the choice to come to us,” said Magomed Matsuev, the stadium’s director, sitting in his office under a portrait of Kadyrov and his father, Akhmad.

Matsuev once hoped to see Grozny named a World Cup host city, and in 2012 went so far as to bring down executives from the British architects KSS and engineers Mott MacDonald to consider a stadium expansion. But politics got in the way, he says, and Grozny was passed over.

Now, hosting a national team with a megastar like Salah, a world-famous Muslim footballer who celebrates each goal in a display of faith, has provided some consolation.

A police officer guards the memorial to Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of Ramzan Kadyrov, who was assassinated by Chechen Islamists in 2004.
A police officer guards the memorial to Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of Ramzan Kadyrov, who was assassinated by Chechen Islamists in 2004. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

“Through football, we are going to show that we are developing, not going backward like the press says, trying to reignite old hatreds through disinformation,” Matsuev said.

Not far from the polished downtown, the Egyptian team, which arrives on Sunday, will be staying at a new luxury hotel built with investment from Dubai. Egyptian players will break the Ramadan fast with halal cuisine in a region where Kadyrov has made alcohol scarce, a pocket of Islamic worship in a country better known for a tradition of Orthodoxy or atheism.

This is the Chechnya built by Kadyrov, a 41-year-old gym fanatic who has become one of Russia’s most effective, and brutal, politicians. The former rebel turned satrap was given carte blanche to quell the region’s simmering Islamic insurgency after his father, the former president, was assassinated in a bomb blast in 2004.

Kadyrov has wielded faith as a tool to remake Chechnya, empowering loyal religious leaders and a local Sufi-infused Islam to cement his control. His religious fervour has sometimes veered into the bizarre: In 2015, he claimed to have received a blood transfusion from a descendant of the prophet Muhammad and said it had made him “the happiest man on earth”.

Mohamed Salah
Egyptian football star Mohamed Salah celebrates each goal with a display of faith. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

“Islam has been a brilliant tool for Ramzan Kadyrov,” said Grigory Shvedov, the editor of Caucasian Knot, one of the few independent news agencies focusing on Russia’s North Caucasus region. By using his faith, “he can sometimes do more than laws in Russia may allow and remain legitimate in the eyes of his population”.

With his power secure at home, Kadyrov has increasingly staked out a position as a defender of the faith outside of Chechnya. In Russia, Kadyrov has organised public protests against cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in Charlie Hebdo and the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar. He has sent military police to Syria and taken in the wives and children of Islamic State fighters returning from Syria.To some degree, Kadyrov has set out to fulfill his father’s prophecy that Chechnya would become “the link tying Russia to Saudi Arabia”.

“He has forged very close ties and relationships with Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia and especially with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan [crown prince of Abu Dhabi],” said Beslan Visambiev, a former government official who now works as a marketing manager for a $50m investment fund in Grozny bankrolled by Dubai.

The Zayed Fund, earmarked to develop small- and medium-sized businesses, is a rare vehicle for foreign direct investment into Chechnya, which receives almost 80% of its funding from the Russian budget.

Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov.
Vladimir Putin with Ramzan Kadyrov. Photograph: Alexei Nikolsky/AP

For the Kremlin, Kadyrov is an important envoy to repair decades of bad blood with the Gulf, a region that has traditionally kept close ties with Washington and seen relations further fray with Moscow during the conflict in Syria. One Russian diplomat compared Kadyrov’s role to an “advance man”, noting that his meetings were a way for the Kremlin to establish contact without holding formal talks.

When Saudi Arabia’s King Salman visited the Kremlin in 2017 for a state visit, the first by a Saudi monarch, Kadyrov was there.

Kadyrov “is very much needed as a person in the Middle East who can show that there is a country that won’t listen to Washington and won’t be scared by sanctions”, said Shvedov.

There have been missteps as Kadyrov has attempted to establish religious authority. A 2016 conference of religious scholars in Chechnya ended in controversy after a fatwa was issued condemning Salafism, a branch of Sunni Islam widespread in Saudi Arabia. Media outlets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE later reported that Kadyrov travelled to Saudi Arabia to apologise in person to the crown prince, although Chechen officials deny that.

Observers of Chechnya note that while Kadyrov’s interests often dovetail with the Kremlin’s, a leading motivation is to ensure continuing streams of funding to Grozny.

“Kadyrov understands he is needed and he shows that he needs to be paid,” said Shvedov, noting Kadyrov’s aggressive lobbying from Moscow on behalf of the region’s budget. “And when he is not properly paid inside of the country, he might pursue his own deals and interests.”


Andrew Roth in Grozny

The GuardianTramp

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