Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin showed support for Chechnya's controversial leader Monday by praising his assassinated father — the first Kremlin-backed Chechen president — and laying flowers at his grave.
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who is accused by critics of human rights abuses, has been facing an upsurge of regional violence that has raised questions about Russian government policy in Chechnya and the surrounding provinces of the North Caucasus.
The Kremlin sees Kadyrov, like his father, as crucial to its efforts to maintain control over the province, which was devastated by two bloody separatist wars since 1994.
Putin traveled to Chechnya just hours before activists in Moscow staged a demonstration commemorating human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, who was abducted last month in Chechnya and murdered after spending years exposing abuses in the region.
Colleagues have blamed Kadyrov for Estemirova's death, saying he rules over a province where widespread abductions and killings go unpunished. They also have said Putin must share responsibility because of his support for Kadyrov.
State-run Rossiya television showed Putin hopping off a camoflauge-colored helicopter on a grassy field in Chechnya, protected by armed guards, and joining Kadyrov in carrying a big wreath of flowers to the grave of Akhmad Kadyrov, who would have been 58 on Sunday.
Akhmad Kadyrov, a rebel in the first separatist war, switched sides and became Chechnya's president after Putin launched the second war in 1999 and government forces drove the separatists from power. He was killed by a bomb planted beneath stadium seats in 2004.
"He was not only a brave and courageous person, he was a very talented person. ... He did not live his life in vain, and he did not give it in vain," Putin said, speaking slowly as if struggling with emotion.
"He laid the foundation for peace in Chechnya," Putin said. "We will remember him — forever."
The Kremlin, under Putin during his eight-year presidency and now under President Dmitry Medvedev, has relied on Ramzan Kadyrov to keep separatist sentiment in check and prevent rebel attacks from spilling out of the heavily Muslim provinces of the North Caucasus and into the rest of Russia.
But recent violence has underscored the region's volatility, and rights activists say the authorities' heavy-handed government treatment of perceived opponents only adds to the tension. Kremlin critics say the relative peace that Chechnya has seen under Kadyrov has come at the price of a climate of fear and violence in which abductions, killings and other abuses are carried out with impunity.
As footage of Putin was aired on evening news programs Monday, several dozen people gathered in Moscow to honor the memory of Estemirova and other Russians who have been killed after criticizing, challenging or exposing alleged abuses by government authorities — among them journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
"Bring the murderers to justice," one sign held by a protester said.
"Only cowards kill women," read another.