When the news broke, under-resourced Russian NGOs began a Herculean
evacuation effort. They offered victims medical, psychological and
financial assistance, and helped some leave Russia.

The official reaction, however, was one of denial.

There were no gay Chechens, said Alvi Karimov, Kadyrov’s spokesman. A priori there could be no purge.

President
Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov meanwhile insisted the Kremlin
was “not aware” of any issue. In mid-April, when Kadyrov met Putin
personally and called the report a lie, the president nodded
in approval.

But the picture changed following a high-profile
meeting between Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in early May.
Several days later, the Russian president told his human rights
ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova that he would support an investigation.

Things had taken a serious turn.

A serious team

Ultimately,
the Kremlin’s willingness to force Chechen officials to cooperate with
the probe will prove to be the litmus test for the investigation, says
Tanya Lokshina, senior Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

But
the caliber of investigators sent to Chechnya offers some cause for
optimism. Lead detective Igor Sobol, in particular, has a reputation
for “meticulous” and “fearless” investigations, says Yekaterina
Sokirianskaia, Russia project director for Brussels-based International
Crisis Group.

“Sobol takes on tough cases,” Sokirianskaia told The
Moscow Times. “It’s quite unprecedented that such a high-level group
of investigators has been assigned to do an initial investigation …
Kadyrov clearly crossed a red line.”

Regardless of its bad record
in ensuring LGBT rights, the Kremlin seems unwilling to tolerate
an international scandal involving torture and murder. That said,
it remains to be seen if there is enough political will to change local
behavior.

“It’s quite likely that [the investigators] will just collect the information and that will be it,” says Sokirianskaia.

Serious headwinds

As of May 22,
over 100 people from Chechnya had applied to the Russian LGBT Network
for help, according to its head Igor Kochetkov. The NGO has already
offered assistance to over 40 men, and 10 others have been helped
in leaving Russia.

For now, under the watch of Moscow inspectors,
the Chechen persecution of gay men has died down, says Kochetkov. There
are no new detentions, and those detained earlier are being released.
But the intimidation of relatives has not ceased. “Even those who
escaped Chechnya are still not safe,” the activist told The Moscow
Times.

Meanwhile, the number of investigators despatched to the
region is expected to grow. Ombudswoman Moskalkova says she is sending
a team to Chechnya to look into the situation, and plans to travel there
herself.

Whatever resources Moscow throws at the investigation,
it is unlikely to have a serious effect on a major elephant in the room:
the virulent intolerance of Chechen society towards the LGBT community. Entrenched views cannot be changed easily, says Grigory Shvedov, editor in chief of the Caucasian Knot online publication.

““Large parts of society remain homophobic,” he says. “More people approve of the crackdown than do not.”