Alvi Karimov, a spokesperson for the head of the Chechen Republic, is reported to have said, “You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in [Chechnya]” on April 2, 2017. The type of people of which Karimov was discussing were individuals with same-sex sexual orientations. Without any further context to this situation, the comment seems at best ridiculous, but becomes more repugnant with further comments from Karimov. He went on to say that “If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”
According to a report published by a Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, it is said that gay men in Chechnya are held in secret detention sites. In these detention centres, it is reported that there have been more than 300 men held against their will, and at least three men have been killed as a result of their treatment at these centres. There have been allegations of torture at these detention sites performed by security officials of Chechnya. Moreover, at these sites, the men who are detained are coerced into giving information of the whereabouts of other gay men they know, thus allowing more individuals to be detained. After the release of Novaya Gazeta’s report, there has been an increase in testimonies of the abuse of gay men at a second detention site, according to Alexander Artemyev. The claims made by Novaya Gazeta in its report were later verified by the Human Rights Watch, which indicated that this has also been a longstanding issue that has crescendoed with these more targeted and comprehensive round-ups of gay men.
Additionally, while these detention centres have had dire consequences for the safety and well-being of LGBTQ individuals, particularly gay men, the treatment of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya has not been limited to violence committed by the state. For example, honour killings have largely been condoned by the Chechen government, as alluded to in the comments made by Alvi Karimov when he states that the relatives of the gay men would “send them somewhere from which there is no returning.” Thus, even if these men leave the detention centres alive, they are by no means guaranteed to be safe, and therefore they have been trying to leave Chechnya.
These repugnant reports coming from Chechnya, while recent, are a part of a bigger and older issue in Russia at large. Russia’s human right’s record in relation to its LGBTQ citizens is far from exemplary and the treatment of gay men in Chechnya is a symptom of this problem. For example, in 2013, the Duma (the Russian parliament) passed a law which prohibited the distribution of material that presents homosexuality as an accepted, normal part of society to children. The rationalization for this decision given by the government was that the presentation of homosexuality as normal would cause children to “form non-traditional sexual predispositions,” i.e. to not form heterosexual relationships. Russia’s conservatism and lingering relationship with its Christian orthodoxy has no small part to play in the villainization of homosexuals in Russia. The passing of this law coincided with the Sochi Olympics in 2014, where political leaders, including former President Barack Obama, boycotted the games. The passage of the law, colloquially known as the gay propaganda law, resulted in an increase of violence towards LGBTQ individuals in Russia. Violence against LGBTQ individuals was perpetrated by groups like Occupy Paedophelia and Parents of Russia who acted under the false pretense of ensuring the safety of children in Russia. These groups also had the dual purpose of perpetuating the idea that LGBTQ individuals were preying on children. Due to the games being held in Sochi, the LGBTQ rights issue in Russia became prominent. As a result, Russia and Putin were internationally criticized.
Chechnya’s relationship with Russia has been, at best, strained. Relations with Chechnya have improved in recent years, and this is arguably related to Ramzan Kadyrov’s, the leader of the Chechen republic, relationship with President Vladimir Putin. It is no secret that Chechnya’s status in Russia is tenuous due to its strong Muslim identity and desire to separate from Russia. However, Russia is not interested in Chechnya extracting itself from the Russian state. (This reluctance to separate is clearly seen in the first and second Chechen wars which occurred in the late 90s and early 2000s.) However, it is difficult to curb the actions of both Putin and Kadyrov as Putin wants to maintain Chechnya’s tenuous stability and other international actors are hard-pressed to find an effective means of convincing Putin to do anything outside of Russia’s interests.
Short-term solutions to the physical threats of LGBTQ individuals are most realistically and effectively solved through their leaving of Chechnya and Russia. This option removes the immediate threat of violence to their persons and also allows LGBTQ individuals to disseminate information more effectively than within Russia’s borders. International criticism via the media and other sources, while far from causing an immediate change in Russian politics, has the potential to be somewhat effective in the long-term. President Putin’s legitimacy as a political leader is threatened by the goings-on of Chechnya as it provides opportunities and material for critics of Putin’s rule. Positive change within Russia, and Chechnya needs to come from within its own borders which could most easily come as a result of regime change. While this is an unlikely, or potentially very fragile outcome, opponents of Putin’s regime, like Alexei Navalny, would seek to address these complex social issues within Russia.