Chechnya's youthful strongman holds region in iron grip
In Russia, they either love him or hate him.
Chechnya's maverick strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who turns 35 on Wednesday, is accused by human rights groups of using his personal militia to allegedly torture and kill opponents.
Yet the former insurgent who could recently be spotted wearing a tracksuit at the Kremlin is widely thought to enjoy carte blanche from Moscow, which turns a blind eye to his heavy-handed tactics in exchange for loyalty.
Kadyrov took power in Chechnya after his father, Akhmat Kadyrov, was killed in a bomb blast in 2004 and now personally takes part in operations to eliminate Islamist militants in the North Caucasus.
Chechnya is known for two bloody separatist wars that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and it continues to be plagued by a simmering Islamist insurgency and suicide bombings.
Kadyrov, at least in public, has always been consistent in his support for Russia's political kingpin Vladimir Putin, who famously pledged to "wipe out [Chechen militants] in the outhouse" at the start of his decade-long grip on Kremlin power in 1999.
"If it were not for Putin, Chechnya would not exist," Kadyrov said in one interview.
"I owe Putin my life. I would not be a real man if I were to forget that," Kadyrov said.
He firmly turned his back on independence and in return his war-torn homeland has in recent years seen intense reconstruction efforts bankrolled by Moscow.
After forceful lobbying from Kadyrov seeking more autonomy, the Kremlin in 2009 ended the so-called anti-terror regime in Chechnya, giving the strongman leader a freer hand in the region.
Rights activists accuse Kadyrov of abusing his powers to create a virtual personal fiefdom.
After rights activist Natalya Estemirova was abducted from outside her Grozny home and found dead in 2009, the head of the rights group Memorial, Oleg Orlov, put the blame on Kadyrov.
"I know, I am sure who is guilty of Natalaya Estemirova's murder, we all know him, his name is Ramzan Kadyrov," he said.
Kadyrov had harshly criticised Estemirova after her death, calling her "without honour."
Kadyrov sued for slander and Orlov in separate rulings was ordered to pay symbolic damages and then acquitted.
Like most regions in the North Caucasus, Chechnya is predominantly Muslim, and Kadyrov has sought to impose Islamic values by encouraging women to wear headscarves and men to take multiple wives, even though traditions like polygamy are in conflict with Russian law.
Kadyrov has also sought to discourage the tradition of bride stealing, saying the ancient practice often leads to bad blood among an intricate patchwork of clans and should therefore cease to exist.
Kadyrov, who has one wife and seven children, three boys and four girls, has also imparted tips on wooing women on national television, stressing that women fall in love through their ears.
"If you explain beautifully, a woman does not look to see whether you are handsome or not -- but listens more, so you can win her heart," Kadyrov said in his heavily accented Russian on television last year.
"It's easy to win her heart. That is why I advise our boys to read stories and watch movies more and to learn more beautiful phrases to tell girls."
He has also raised eyebrows for his eccentric behaviour, including keeping a private zoo complete with tigers and panthers.
In 2009, the Chechen capital Grozny saw the opening of a design studio, with Kadyrov praising the move as a "great step forward towards the development of high fashion in the Chechen Republic."
Earlier this year, Kadyrov extended an invitation to Dutch football legend Ruud Gullit to come to Chechnya to coach Terek Grozny, the top local club, only to sack him several months later, claiming he showed too much interest in nightclubs and drinking.
The revival of Muslim traditions following the Soviet collapse coincides with an increase in insurgent attacks and is unnerving for the Kremlin amid signs that firm control over the unrest-infested region is far from assured.
© 2011 AFP