Oleg Masayev nervously fingered a cellphone as if working a string of prayer beads, his large blue eyes darting back and forth. He wanted to talk, he said, about his brother, who had disappeared without a trace or explanation, as if simply carried away by one of the dust devils that twirl along Chechnya’s roads.
“He was our youngest brother,” Masayev said. “He was the one we loved the most.”
The vanished brother had lived in Moscow and had little opportunity to become entangled in the separatist violence in Chechnya; he had, however, offered a chilling firsthand account as a victim of official abuse.
The wars that have ravaged Chechnya since the collapse of the Soviet Union have officially ended. Grozny, the capital, has been mostly rebuilt, and stores and cafes are open.
Yet the republic is in the throes of an epidemic of kidnappings. The abduction and killing last Wednesday of Natalia Estemirova, a celebrated human rights worker, comes in the context of an escalating trend of unexplained disappearances. Dragged off the sidewalks, pulled out of beds at night or grabbed from their cars, scores of people have simply vanished.
In the first six months of this year, the Russian human rights organization Memorial, where Estemirova worked, documented 74 kidnappings in Chechnya, compared with 42 for all of last year.
Human rights groups have laid the blame for the bulk of the disappearances, and the killing of Estemirova, squarely at the feet of the regional president, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his security forces.
Abductions have evolved from a largely successful, if brutal, counterinsurgency tactic to a form of political repression by Kadyrov’s government, said Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a researcher at Memorial.
Kadyrov, she said, has been governing and settling personal vendettas using the same carte blanche Moscow granted him to fight the war.
“Everybody calls him a small Stalin,” she said. “He is getting rid of political rivals and independent voices.”
Both Kadyrov and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, have denied that Kadyrov had a role in the killing of Estemirova.
Memorial’s director, Oleg Orlov, has directly accused Kadyrov of the killing, reflecting the group’s broader analysis of the causes of the abduction epidemic in Chechnya.
Kadyrov said on Friday he would sue Orlov for slander.
The rise in abductions in Chechnya comes even as most reported insurgent activity in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus has moved outside of Chechnya, an analysis by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has shown.
Last year, for example, the small region of Ingushetia surpassed Chechnya in the number of reported acts of insurgency-related violence, with 350 incidents compared with 210 in Chechnya, the center said.
In Dagestan, another republic, ethnic strife and police corruption are fueling a low-grade insurgency.
Overall, the center reported, the number of violent acts last year in the North Caucasus, with a combined population of 6.1 million, was about four times larger than in Colombia, with a population of 42 million.
Kadyrov, who was installed as president just after his 30th birthday, has never lost his rough edges as he has evolved from a field commander to political leader.
Stocky and bearded, he once showed up in a tracksuit for an audience at the Kremlin, and enjoyed careering around Grozny, assault rifles strewn in the back seat. He keeps a private zoo, stocked with fighting dogs and ostriches.