WASHINGTON — It’s not every day that a man alleged to have personally participated in the torture of his political opponents gets to carry the Olympic flame. But that’s one of the upsides of hosting the Winter Olympics in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
This week, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic and a man alleged to have once beaten a detainee with the handle of a shovel, took to Instagram to document a milestone in his life: getting to carry the Olympic torch through the Chechen capital of Grozny.
There was Kadyrov lighting the flame, running with the flame, posing with the flame, holding the flame, surrounded by children while holding the flame, and more.
The Kremlin-backed Kadyrov, attired in a colorful Olympic uniform and a matching pom-pom hat, beams in the photographs. He has good reason to be smiling: The flame managed to make its way safely through the north Caucasus.
Terrorist groups in the region have made it known that they would like nothing less than to attack the games, and Kadyrov himself would be a prized target for Islamist insurgents. Earlier this month, rebels in neighboring Dagestan claimed responsibility for a pair of bombings in Volgograd that left dozens dead, adding that there would be a “present” waiting for Putin in Sochi.
Russian security officials are increasingly concerned that terrorists will manage to strike the Olympics, which are a pet project of Putin’s. The Olympic resort became the stage for an epic manhunt — or woman-hunt to be more precise — after Russian authorities announced that a potential suicide bomber, or “Black Widow,” had made her way into the city.
Due to safety concerns, authorities shortened the flame’s routes through Grozny and Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. In Grozny, the flame ended its journey in a stadium named after Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, who was killed by Chechen islamists in 2004 in a bomb attack in a sports stadium during a World War II memorial parade.
Kadyrov was installed in power in Grozny after a brutal Russian campaign to restore control over the breakaway province, and in a measure of loyalty toward his masters in Moscow, Kadyrov said last week that Chechens would be rooting for the Russian team during the Sochi Olympics.
“We are Russians and will prove it with our acts and deeds,” Kadyrov told a regional news service.
It is probably safe to assume that many Chechens would beg to differ — especially Doku Umarov, the Chechen rebel leader who allegedly ordered the Volgograd attacks and whom Kadyrov has declared dead on three separate occasions in during the last two months.
In an interview this week with the Russian newspaper Izvestia, Kadyrov repeated his claim that Umarov has been killed. Caucasus observers remain skeptical of these declarations, and even Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has cautioned that Umarov should be considered alive until proven dead.
But should Kadyrov come across photographic evidence of Umarov’s death, expect to see it on the strongman’s Instagram.
Hanna Kozlowska is a Foreign Policy fellow.