MOSCOW (AP) — 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. Kadyrov has recruited more than 1,000 people for his private security detail, which is technically part of the Russian Interior Ministry's troops.
"It's impossible to say 'no' because violence is pervasive," Sokirianskaia says. "Chechnya is small. Everyone knows several people who have been seriously affected by this regime in a violent way, and they need no proof."
The only financial data released by the foundation shows that it held 1.5 billion rubles ($25 million) in net assets in 2015. Unlike other Russian non-governmental organizations, which are obliged by law to submit financial reports to authorities or face hefty fines, the Kadyrov Foundation closely guards its finances.
The Justice Ministry's official database of NGOs doesn't list a single report from the Kadyrov Foundation. The ministry told The Associated Press that the foundation files its financial reports on time and submitted its latest one in March, but wouldn't say why they weren't made public.
Kadyrov's spokesman, Alvi Karimov, refused to discuss the foundation's work, telling The Associated Press that "the figures are all in the press."
Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015 launched a military operation in Syria to provide air cover for the government's offensive against the Islamic State group. Moscow has also been eager to project a softer image in Syria, offering medical aid and food to local residents.
Kadyrov has ruled predominantly Muslim Chechnya since the 2004 assassination of his father, a separatist leader who switched sides to support the Russian government after two bloody wars in the 1990s. In recent years, Kadyrov has used Russia's military support of Syrian President Bashar Assad to boost his authority at home and to position himself as Russia's most influential Muslim abroad.
He has cultivated ties with other Muslim leaders, from hosting Jordan's king in the regional capital Grozny to holding talks with Mohammed bin Salman years before the Saudi defense minister was named Saudi Arabia's new crown prince.
In 2015, the Saudi king opened the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam, for Kadyrov and his delegation on a rare occasion when visitors were allowed to see it outside the holy month of Ramadan.
Kadyrov's foundation said it expects to finish work on Aleppo's Great Mosque, also known as the Umayyad Mosque, next year but wouldn't release any estimate of the project's cost. The mosque, which had its walls shredded by shrapnel, and the minaret where the call for prayers sounded for 900 years toppled, needs at least $7 million in repairs, Mamoun Abdul-Karim, head of Syria's Antiquities and Museums Department, told the AP.
Kadyrov's foundation also is restoring a mosque in Homs that holds a special importance for Muslims since it hosts the shrine of Khalid Bin al-Walid, a companion of Prophet Muhammad.
By relying on Russian Muslims to build mosques and police the streets of Syrian cities, Moscow is trying to improve its standing in the Muslim world damaged by the bombing campaign that has reportedly killed hundreds of civilians.
Putting the Chechen leader in charge of restoring the two mosques instead of portraying the work as a Russian government project was a conscious choice, Caucasus watchers say.
"A mosque restored by a Christian state that bombs the country wouldn't have the same legitimacy," Sokirianskaia said. "Trying to show that the donation was Muslim was aimed to compensate for this."
When Russia decided to send military police to Syria last December, the first battalion that was dispatched there was from Chechnya. There has only been one deployment of non-Chechens to Syria in the last seven months — a contingent from another predominantly Muslim region, Ingushetia.
The Kremlin is happy with the Chechens' involvement in Syria since Kadyrov's activities there are "strictly in line with Russia's foreign policy, not a step out of line," said Alexei Malashenko, chief researcher at the Moscow-based Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute.
The arrangement also benefits Kadyrov.
"Thanks to this, Kadyrov is building his reputation in Putin's eyes and demonstrates his super-loyalty," Malashenko said. "And it also works to bolster Ramzan's image as an unofficial leader in the Russian Muslim community."
As part of the extensive coverage of Kadyrov's charity work in Chechnya, the local state-owned television network in January ran a half-hour feature about a Chechen delegation's trip to Syria. Grozny TV's footage showed Kadyrov's close ally, Adam Delimkhanov, and others performing Friday prayers in the courtyard of the Aleppo mosque, still littered with debris from months of shelling.
Delimkhanov and Chechnya's chief mufti later visited the Chechen police battalion which patrols the streets of Aleppo, and made impassioned speeches in Chechen. Grozny TV showed Aleppo residents cheering the Chechens.
"People are genuinely thankful to the troops for their hard work," the television report said.
Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.