Star-studded bash as Chechnya strongman turns 35

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Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov turned 35 on Wednesday with congratulatory calls from Russia's ruling duo and grandiose celebrations held around the Caucasus republic.

The swaggering leader, who critics accuse of megalomania and heavy-handed tactics, had banned bureaucrats from celebrating his birthday on pain of being fired, so the events in the former war zone of Chechnya were tied to the city day as well as a national teachers' holiday and a "day of Chechen youth."

A former insurgent, Kadyrov took power in Chechnya after his father, Akhmat Kadyrov, was killed in a bomb blast as he attended a Victory Day concert in the volatile region in 2004.

His critics say Kadyrov runs Chechnya as his personal fiefdom and enjoys carte blanche and hefty financial assistance from the Kremlin in exchange for loyalty.

Even though the Russian authorities remained conspicuously silent on the matter, Kadyrov's spokesman Alvi Karimov told AFP that his patron received phonecalls with birthday wishes from both Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

In unprecedented security measures in Chechnya, where the Kremlin waged two wars with separatists in the past 20 years, authorities closed the main highways leading into Grozny on Monday and police carried out document checks on residents of all apartment blocks in the past two weeks.

International flags and banners bearing birthday wishes from residents festooned the main streets of Grozny, substantially rebuilt after the two separatist wars, as Chechnya prepared to throw a concert later Wednesday.

Stars including Jean-Claude Van Damme had arrived in the Chechen capital to participate in the festivities, the government said.

Colombian singer Shakira, known for hits such as "Hips don't lie", was reportedly hired to perform for the celebrations, but she denied this on Twitter, saying she was never booked for the event.

However, Kadyrov claimed in a live televised interview on Tuesday that human rights activists had warned Shakira against coming.

"Rights activists wrote a letter to Shakira telling her not to come to us, because the authorities here kill people, human rights are breached here. Only enemies of the people could write this," he said in typically belligerent rhetoric.

Violinist Vanessa Mae was also named earlier as performing at the evening concert at the opening of a new skyscraper complex, Grozny-City, to be televised live, by the Chechen government.

Kadyrov had earlier banned any events being held for his birthday and warned officials that "anyone who even tries to give me a present will immediately be sacked," the state RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Kremlin advisor and former leader of neighbouring Ingushetia, Murat Zyazikov, passed on birthday wishes to Kadyrov in the Kommersant newspaper, praising him for "establishing peace and order on the beautiful Chechen soil."

Human rights activists, however, accuse Kadyrov of presiding over a personal militia that carries out rampant rights abuses, torture and even murder.

Often photographed with luxury cars and the owner of a string of racehorses, Kadyrov has sought to draw positive publicity for Chechnya by inviting international celebrities.

This year he invited footballer Diego Maradona to play at a celebrity match and hired Dutch player Ruud Gullit to manage the republic's Terek football team, only to unceremoniously sack him for spending too much time in nightclubs.

Such spectacular celebrations for long-serving leaders' birthdays are commonplace in the ex-Soviet Union.

This year, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev invited British pop star Sting to perform at celebrations on his 71st birthday, which were also formally linked to a city day.

Sting pulled out at the last moment on the instigation of Amnesty International campaign group, citing violations of the rights of striking workers.

© 2011 AFP

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