Hidden Rainbow: the persecution of Chechnya’s LGBT+ community9 min read
Chechnya regularly sparks discussion in the media, from the rise of controversial leader Ramzan Kadyrov, through enforcement of the Islamic dress code on Chechen women, to the Chechen death squads hunting people in Europe – the southwestern Russian republic more often than not comes to the centre of attention due to controversies or human rights violations. It was no different in 2020 when the documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” by David France received the Amnesty Film Award at Berlinale.
The documentary discusses one of Chechnya’s biggest taboos: LGBT+ and “shadows a group of activists who risk unimaginable peril to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ pogrom raging in the repressive and closed Russian republic.” Viewers had a chance to observe how oppressive Chechen law is to the LGBT+ community, but the film also raised questions about how the almost 4 years long “gay purge” in Chechnya continues without interference from Moscow. Indeed, the Russian government has never stopped or at least acknowledged Chechnya’s terrible record towards LGBT+ rights.
This situation raises additional questions regarding the extent of the power of the central government in the Russian Federation over its republics, but also whether the reasons why Moscow is not reacting to the situation faced by the LGBT+ community in Chechnya are only because of the legal aspects of the constitution, which declares broad independence of republics. In other words, to what extent is Chechnya really a part of Russia in practical terms? And how does this influence the widely perceived image of a strong Russia?
To answer the first question it is crucial to look into the Russian constitutional law, as the law itself creates pluralism. Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim republic, where the majority follow the Shafi’i Madhhab school of Sunni Islam. As one of 22 federal republics of the Russian Federation, it is semi-autonomous with its own constitution, language, and legal system but without its own representation in international affairs. All rights in Chechnya are granted by the Russian constitution, which states that republics, “shall have their own constitution and legislation” and “shall have the right to establish their own state languages.”
However, Chechnya sought independence after the USSR’s dissolution, whilst Russia, on the other hand, was trying to regain power and control in the area. This led to the First and Second Chechen wars at the beginning of the 21st century, which will be remembered as a time of bloody and brutal Chechen-Russian conflict.
In 2009, after nearly 10 years of conflict that cost thousands of lives, Putin officially declared the so-called counter-terrorist operation to be over, bringing the war to an end. It was a symbolic victory for Russia, which at that time was a country needing a strong leader who would “hunt terrorists everywhere” (Those were Putin’s exact words).
Another “winner” of this solution was Ramzan Kadyrov, who at the time of the Second Chechen War was prime minister of Chechnya. His goal was to bring the Russian operation to an end and gain more independence from Moscow. However, the alleged peace did not stop terrorist attacks against the Russian population.
In 2010, 39 people were killed by 2 female Chechen suicide bombers on Moscow’s metro, while in 2011 at least 36 people died in another suicide bombing, this time at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. Doku Umarov, leader of the Islamist Chechen movement, took responsibility for those, and other attacks.
Legal pluralism in Chechnya
Some Chechens still have separatist sentiments even though Chechnya is now part of Russia not only geographically, but also administratively. The republic should therefore obey Russian state law, however, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, states that “Chechnya is a de facto independent state. Although formally Kadyrov shows loyalty to Putin and formally Chechnya is part of Russia.”
The southwestern Russian republic demonstrates an unusual legal mixture of customary law, Sharia, and Russian state law. In practice, we can observe that not only the state law is observed in Chechnya, in many situations such as marriage (polygamy) or death (murder or honour killings) it is Sharia or customary law that is observed by the society.
In his dissertation “Laws in Conflict: Legacies of War and Legal Pluralism in Chechnya” Egor Lazarev argues that the strategy of Kadyrov’s government to promote legal pluralism and undermine state law is what helps them to control the society. Men can “use custom and religion to keep control over their families in exchange for their political loyalty.”
Such practices show the Kremlin that Chechnya is a part of Russia but only officially and cannot be ruled by anyone other than Ramzan Kadyrov. It also suggests a need to change perspectives of Russia as strong and dangerous, when in fact it has little or no power whatsoever over one of its own republics.
Ramzan Kadyrov himself is an important figure in the discussion regarding human rights or legal pluralism in Chechnya Kadyrov, who gained power in Chechnya after his father was killed, has, on numerous occasions, proved that he is no supporter of gender equality or LGBT+ rights.
Kadyrov has often pointed out what he believes the roles of women and men in society should be. In 2007, for example, he said that women have to adjust to the law regarding modest dress code, but they should also follow men’s orders, and since he became the Head of the Chechen Republic, he has promoted traditional gender roles in the society. In an interview with HBO in 2017 when asked about gay men being tortured and abducted in Chechnya, Kadyrov said, “we don’t have those kinds of people here. We don’t have any gays. If there are any take them to Canada“.
It is no secret that homosexuality and transgenderism in Chechnya are taboo topics. Being homosexual or transgender in Chechnya is often considered a stain on a family’s honour, which in many cases can only be cleansed by murder. This means that LGBT+ people, who cannot be vocal or visible, also regularly feel threatened in their own homes as the threat may come from their relatives.
Even though homophobia and transphobia are deeply embedded in Chechen society, the “anti-gay purge” that, according to David France’s documentary, started early in 2017 cannot be explained by this alone. According to many experts, including Human Rights Watch, it is more probable that it was ordered and conducted by Chechen officials.
February 2017 marked the beginning of a well-organised action, aimed at gay men and those suspected of being gay. Dozens of men were held in unofficial detention facilities, where they were beaten, starved, and tortured. Some disappeared forever, like popular singer Zelim Bakayev, whose fate is unknown after he was reported missing in August 2017.
Reports of Human Right Watch and articles in the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta about the treatment of gay men in Chechnya were confirmed by those who returned home, having survived unspeakable trauma such as Maxim Lapunov and Amin Dzhabrailov. Both Lapunov and Dzhabrailov escaped from Chechnya with the help of organisations like the Russian LGBT Network and the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives. For many LGBT+ people in Chechnya, this seems like the only option.
International recognition and Russia’s (non-)reaction
The “anti-gay purge” in Chechnya once again sparked an international discussion. Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, urged Moscow and Vladimir Putin to investigate sudden disappearances, killings, and alleged torture of gay men in Chechnya. They also emphasised the importance of the journalist writing about the situation.
The Chechen leader, who argued that international organisations were conducting an information attack, met with Putin and reassured him that these claims were simply provocations. But Putin did not ask any questions and did not add any comments to Kadyrov’s statement. What is more, Dmitry Peskov, Russian Presidential Press Secretary said that “Kadyrov’s confirmation that everything will be done within a legal framework was of course approved by the president.”
Moscow backed the Chechen government in denying that any of the allegations were true as there was no evidence proving that, therefore nobody was charged and no justice was served. Neither the discussion nor the shocking reports changed anything in Chechnya.
The bigger picture
The lack of willingness to address the issue in both Chechnya and Russia stands in contrast to recommendations made in a 2019 Human Rights Report report about the new anti-gay purge in Chechnya.
Four men, who were kept and tortured for presumed homosexuality at the Grozny Internal Affairs Department for between 3 and 20 days between December 2018 and February 2019, were interviewed by Human Rights Watch. A crime report filed by the Russian LGBT Network also claims that since December 2018, dozens of people have been unlawfully imprisoned for their sexual orientation.
But still – Russia does not react. One possible reason why the Kremlin continues to ignore the issue relates to the argument mentioned above regarding Moscow’s lack of control of legal plurality in Chechnya. On the other hand, Russia has its own issues with LGBT+ rights.
Over Putin’s 20-year reign, he has got closer to the Russian Orthodox Church and proved that Russia under his presidency will be far from any “Western values” but close to “traditional values”. To pursue these traditional values even more, in 2013 federal laws introduced a ban on so-called ‘propaganda’ promoting non-traditional sexual relationships.
According to Article 19 of the Russian constitution, the so-called “gay propaganda law” is harmful to freedom of speech and discriminates against the LGBT+ community. Putin denied this and used the example of nation-wide love for Elton John “regardless of his sexual orientation” as proof that homosexuals are not discriminated against in Russia. His argumentation contradicts the recent decision regarding same-sex marriages – they will not be possible as long as he is the president. In Putin’s words “There will be dad and mum.”
Despite international recognition of the problem and calls for justice, the LGBT+ community in Chechnya is still vulnerable. What is their future? Immigration, hiding, or death. Moscow does not seem to be engaged in this topic at all, but changes in Russian society, especially among younger generations may be a reason for hope. It can be observed that young Russians see the possibility of connecting LGBT+ rights with Russian values and when the day comes, they will be voting in future presidential elections.
If anything really is to change in Russia, it would have to start from the central government changing the discriminating laws and reacting in the crises in other republics, because, as the Russian proverb goes, ‘A fish always rots from the head down.’