Chechnya becoming major player in rebuilding war-torn Syria

AP PHOTO In this Jan. 19, file photo, people visit the courtyard of the heavily damaged Great Mosque of Aleppo, in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria. Russia’s mostly Muslim republic of Chechnya is becoming a major player in rebuilding war-ravaged Syria; and ordinary Chechens are likely to foot the bill.

MOSCOW — Russia’s mostly Muslim republic of Chechnya is becoming a major player in rebuilding war-ravaged Syria. And ordinary Chechens are likely to foot the bill, with many of them being forced to make contributions or face the possibility of exile or death, human rights activists say.

A murky charitable foundation run by the family of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is restoring Aleppo’s landmark mosque. The gesture is aimed at helping the Kremlin cement its footprint in Syria and to solidify Kadyrov’s standing in the Muslim world.

The Kadyrov Foundation, one of Russia’s wealthiest charities, has spent millions bringing Western celebrities to Chechnya, buying sports cars for athletes and building mosques in Israel, Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and elsewhere. More recently, the foundation turned its sights to Syria.

While no one doubts Syria needs all the help it can get after seven years of civil war, human rights activists see sinister and self-serving objectives in the Kadyrov Foundation’s undertaking. They allege that the organization has been used as Kadyrov’s private piggy bank — one filled by compulsory contributions from the Chechen people.

“The major source of funding for the foundation is ordinary people and businesses in Chechnya because the entire republic is paying this informal tax,” said Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, project director for Russia and North Caucasus at the International Crisis Group.

It has offered to feed Syrian refugees in Germany and Jordan, sent sheep to Syria for Ramadan feasts, and announced it was rebuilding the war-damaged Great Mosque of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, as well as another important mosque in the Syrian city of Homs.

Rights activists in the North Caucasus have documented Chechen authorities coercing residents to make contributions from their salaries to the foundation and toward unspecified needs of Kadyrov and his inner circle.

How much Chechen workers give to the foundation varies, activists say. Some businesses and employees are expected to furnish a set percentage of their earnings every month. Others, mostly the lowest-paid civil servants, are asked for contributions on an ad-hoc basis. The average monthly salary is about $360 in Chechnya, which has a population of about 1.4 million.

In 2016, prominent rights group Memorial received a formal complaint from employees of a provincial social security department in Chechnya. They reported that about 70 percent of their pay was withheld for donations to the foundation. Memorial petitioned prosecutors, but the investigation found no misconduct.

Refusing to pay isn’t an option. Kadyrov’s opponents have been killed or driven into exile; disappearances have become mundane; families of suspected militants have been forced to leave Chechnya and their houses burnt down.