"King Ramzan" swaggers into his Grozny office like a man with the world at his feet. He's making an odd smacking sound with his lips, but his courtiers - and there are plenty of them - pretend not to notice. The Russian-backed Prime Minister of Chechnya is not a man to be messed with, especially if you work for him.
At the age of just 30, Ramzan Kadyrov counts the Russian President Vladimir Putin as a close ally, wields enormous power in his war-ravaged world-infamous republic, and is the object of a Stalin-style personality cult. He is a man whose fearsome reputation is matched only by tales of his eclectic and unusual hobbies and tastes.
His "pets" include a lion and a rare and endangered tiger. He is a keen boxer who counts the convicted rapist Mike Tyson among his friends, and he has a penchant for ostentatiously handing out wads of 1,000-rouble (£20) notes among his subjects.
Even more unorthodox are his views, which have raised eyebrows in Moscow and beyond. He has advocated polygamy, banned gambling, and clamped down on the sale of alcohol - all policies that would cause a riot if implemented elsewhere in Russia.
Wherever you turn in Grozny, Chechnya's bombed-out capital, Kadyrov is there. His bearded face smiles down at you Big Brother-style, his penetrating eyes reminding you who's in charge. One such portrait, an oddly avuncular likeness, gazes across the city's freshly rebuilt Minutka Square, an oasis of eerie quiet that was the scene of fierce fighting in two brutal and fruitless wars of independence.
"We're proud of you!" gushes the legend below, one of many flattering pro-Kadyrov slogans that festoon the war-scarred city. Yet admiration of Kadyrov, as he and his image-makers know all too well, is far from universal.
Bereaved colleagues of the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya have suggested that he may have ordered her killing as retribution for her investigations into human-rights abuses in Chechnya. Meanwhile, human-rights groups claim that he has personally overseen horrific torture sessions in several private dungeons said to be near or beneath his homes. And his loyal foot soldiers - nicknamed "Kadyrovites", to his great annoyance - stand accused of torturing, kidnapping and murdering anyone who has obstructed the Kremlin's goal of restoring order in the troubled republic.
To the distaste of some politicians in Moscow, there is another entry on his CV that is equally unsettling: he is a former separatist rebel who fought against the Russians, only to change sides and join them - for now.
Meeting the man is a sobering experience, and even our Russian minders from Moscow seem nervous. "Stick strictly to the questions that you indicated you would ask beforehand," one of them tells me as we wait in the corridors of the heavily fortified Chechen-government compound in the heart of Grozny.
When I suggest that I may have one or two other spontaneous questions, the response is icy. "Yes, I bet I know what kind of questions they will be," spits one minder. "Disgusting ones." Silence descends until the moment that we are summoned inside, and the minder's face becomes redder and redder as the time approaches.
Inside, Kadyrov's office resembles the boardroom of a multinational corporation, albeit with a few significant differences. The federal Russian flag stands alongside the green flag of the Chechen republic, and from one wall, a framed black-and-white picture of Che Guevara stares down. Kadyrov clearly identifies with the Argentine who made his name in Cuba, since his fan club (yes, he does have a fan club) often waves aloft stencilled posters of the Chechen leader wearing Che's beret and adopting the same uncompromising stare.
The subtext is clear: Kadyrov wants to be seen as a former freedom fighter who has swapped his camouflage fatigues for a suit. Further along the same wall hangs what looks at first glance to be a gold-encrusted icon but, on closer examination, turns out to be a portrait of his late father. He frequently voices his admiration for Kadyrov senior, a former Russian-backed President of Chechnya who was murdered in 2004 in a bomb attack, and this occasion is to be no different. A tearaway in his youth, Kadyrov explains ruefully how he has always tried - but often failed - to live up to his father's expectations.
A colourful portrait of a woman wearing a headscarf adorns another wall, presumably Kadyrov's mother, and I notice at least two likenesses of his benefactor, Vladimir Putin.
Through the window, the green-topped minaret of a newly built mosque reaches up into the gloomy Grozny sky, a reminder that Kadyrov has styled himself as a devout Muslim and adopted elements of shariah for his regime. It's an image that was dented last year when a home movie put on the internet showed a man of his appearance frolicking in a sauna with two prostitutes. Kadyrov insisted that it wasn't him, referring to it only as "a provocation".
When he enters the room, it falls nervously silent and everyone stands up while he takes his seat at the head of a long, polished wooden table. In person, he exudes raw charisma and an oddly unrefined regality - his "King Ramzan" nickname - an epithet chosen by some elements of the Russian military, seems apt. A squat, powerfully built man, he swaggers rather than walks, with his powerful boxer's shoulders almost bursting out of his pinstriped suit. His press attaché, a small, intense man, keeps an eye on his charge as if he were guarding a stick of dynamite primed to explode if faced with one hostile question. But during this, one of his very rare audiences with foreign media, Kadyrov deals calmly and frankly with the many allegations against him, no matter how grave.
Wincing slightly as he listens to some of the questions, he categorically denies any involvement in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who made her name investigating human-rights abuses in Chechnya. She was gunned down in the lift of her Moscow apartment block on 7 October (coincidentally, Putin's birthday), and police are still looking for her killer.
Kadyrov appears to find it far-fetched that he had anything to do with it. "Why would I have killed her?" he says, in heavily accented Russian (Chechen is his first language). "She used to write bad things about my father, and if I had wanted to, I could have done something bad to her at that time. Why now?"
Sticking to the Kremlin's oft-repeated line on the matter, he urged investigators to look instead at the UK-based oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who he suggested had ordered her murder (and that of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko) to create instability and blacken Russia's name. "She [Politkovskaya] would have done better to stay at home and be a housewife," he muses, in a typically acerbic aside. "But that [her job and her murder] was her destiny. What can you do? The Almighty is the judge." When discussing Politkovskaya's murder, he is clearly uncomfortable, but does his best to put on a brave face.
Yet the fact remains that Politkovskaya was one of Kadyrov's fiercest critics, calling for him to be removed from power and put on trial for his alleged crimes. "He is an extremely cruel man," she told Ekho Moskvy radio in one interview, shortly before her death. "I have met several people who told me that Ramzan Kadyrov personally tortured them in his home in the village of Tsentoroi.
"They [the witnesses] said that Kadyrov and the other man with him used very elaborate torture. For example, they peel narrow strips of skin off a person's back. This is the sort of torture you would call medieval brutality."
Ramzan's PR advisers, some of whom hail from Moscow, have clearly prepared him to answer such charges calmly and without losing his cool, and he has a ready-made explanation.It is simplistic, and he repeats it like a mantra when faced with any allegation of wrongdoing, branding the human-rights organisations that accuse him, as "enemies" paid to invent crimes that he never committed. "I don't consider most of them human-rights activists but con artists playing on people's feelings for their own glory," he says, warming to his theme, his small eyes flashing with passion.
"Why would Kadyrov [he is prone to refer to himself in the first person] need this [torture and murder]? I've lost everything for the sake of creating order here. I've lost the most precious person in my life [his father] in 2004. Let them come up with proof, rather than just words."
Much of Kadyrov's power stems from one man: Vladimir Putin. When his father was murdered on 9 May 2004 as a bomb exploded beneath him while he reviewed a military parade in Grozny, the bereaved Kadyrov junior appeared on Russian state television, alongside a sombre-looking Putin, just hours later. It was interpreted as a vote of confidence in the young Chechen, a feeling that was reinforced when Kadyrov was awarded a "Hero of Russia Star", one of the Kremlin's top honours.
So it comes as little surprise that Kadyrov is unflinchingly loyal to Putin, who is due to step down in 2008. "Russia has never had such a president [as Putin]," he gushes. "If I had my way, I would make him president for life. He and his team are the only ones who can maintain Russia's might and its greatness."
Though Kadyrov is already extremely powerful as Chechnya's prime minister, it is an open secret that he covets the presidency of Chechnya, a position currently held by a mild-mannered former policeman called Alu Alkhanov. But, like politicians the world over, he is self-deprecating in the extreme when questioned about his ambitions, and styles himself as a humble servant of his long-suffering people. "Why should I have such ambitions? I am a team player.
"I am a son of my nation. It does not matter whether I am prime minister, a soldier, or a policeman. The main thing is to be useful to the people, that I can look into people's eyes, and that people see that there are real benefits from my activities."
When asked whether he feels that he may have become the object of an unhealthy cult of personality, his face contorts with displeasure and he is equally dismissive. "Personality cults are an insult to Islam," he says, bluntly. "It's 'non-friends' who spread such speculation. I am a son of the Chechen people. I am no different from anyone else."
One of the themes that exercise him is Chechnya's image on the world stage as a war-flattened kidnap-capital inhabited by terrorists. "In the past," he says "we [Chechens] weren't needed by anyone. We were called bandits, terrorists. Even the Russian press said we were fascists. We were used - I don't want anyone to use us again."
At this point, the assembled advisers are becoming visibly twitchy and clearly want the audience to end, but Kadyrov appears to be getting into his stride. He warms to a question about Iraq, lambasting the US President, George Bush, for "irritating" Muslims the world over with his policies, and urging him to "find a common language" with Iraqis. "If America does not come to terms with the local population, the Muslims, they will never establish order there. They should find a second Saddam Hussein and come to terms with him. That's my personal opinion."
But it is when asked about his government's claim for a slice of the revenue accrued from oil extracted on its territory that his advisers appear desperate to draw an end to the interview. It is an issue that cuts straight to the heart of Moscow's relations with Chechnya. At the moment, the republic's oil reserves are controlled firmly by the Kremlin, but Kadyrov has long been keen to claw back some of that money from the centre. A note is passed, urging him to wrap things up, but he tosses it aside with disdain and barks something at his press attaché in Chechen that silences the man immediately.
"We get little [revenue]," he says, sullenly, looking down at the table. When asked how much he wants, his answer is typically straightforward: "A lot." In Kremlin circles, such blunt talking is reported to have made certain figures nervous of giving him so much power. Those fears were compounded in November when a special group of Chechen "policemen" shot dead Movladi Baisarov, a prominent critic of Kadyrov, in central Moscow, 1,000 miles north of Chechnya.
One month before his death, Baisarov, who had himself been accused of involvement in murders and kidnappings, gave an outspoken interview about Kadyrov in which he appeared to foresee his own demise. "He [Kadyrov] acts like a medieval tyrant," said Baisarov. "If someone tells the truth about what is going on, it's like signing his own death warrant." On 18 November, Baisarov was shot dead on Moscow's Leninsky Prospekt while apparently resisting arrest. Many believe that he was eliminated because he knew too much. "Ramzan acts with total impunity," Baisarov had said. "I know of many people executed on his express orders, and I know exactly where they are buried."
The frequency and seriousness of such allegations has prompted Kadyrov's detractors to argue that Moscow has made a Faustian pact that it will come to regret. Moscow may be able to avoid prosecuting wars that end in hollow victories, they contend, but the price for such a peace is too high.
Inside Chechnya, however, Ramzan's star seems to shine brighter and brighter. Grozny's main thoroughfare, Victory Prospekt, has been renamed Kadyrov Prospekt, and the city's centrepiece is a statue to his late father, with a two-man Kalashnikov-wielding honour guard around the clock. Indeed, at times, Chechen state TV feels like Kadyrov TV. "Ramzan: A Hero of Our Time. Discuss", one channel urges schoolchildren taking part in a nationwide essay competition. A few minutes later, to the accompaniment of rousing Top Gun-style music, the same channel presents this year's candidates for "Person of the Year". No prizes for guessing who gets top billing.
Ramzan's unmistakable features loom over the republic's schoolchildren in their playgrounds, too."Ramzan is a role model for youth and a worthy son of his people," reads a giant banner on one school's façade.
Indeed, it's impossible to find anybody with a bad word to say about him. Vaaka Zakayev, who has lived in a refugee hostel in Grozny with his wife and five children without running water or a proper lavatory for the past four years, is typical. He says that he can't get financial compensation for his bomb-destroyed home, but insists that he doesn't blame Kadyrov for that, or for his living conditions. "If Ramzan knew our situation, he would fulfil his obligations immediately," he says. "But they [his advisers] don't tell him. He's a good man. He just needs to be allowed to work."
Anzor Muzaev, the rector of Grozny's main university, is similarly impressed. "We've had many heroes and leaders in our history, but he's the first person to care for every member of the population."
Even Zargan Nushaeva, who says that her 18-year-old son was kidnapped by Russian soldiers in 2001 and that she can't find out what happened to him to this day, doesn't bear Ramzan any ill will. "We're relying on him. We have hope in him. I have a good opinion of him." In his people's eyes, Ramzan has found a way of promoting Chechnya's interests that avoids fighting never-ending wars that turn the republic's towns into a lunar landscape. After two brutal wars, an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 deaths, one million newly created refugees, numerous war crimes, and the aerial and artillery bombardment of civilian cities, Kadyrov is portrayed as the man who is picking up the pieces and rebuilding broken lives and homes. But, like his personality, his past is contradictory and complex.
In the first Chechen War, from 1994-96, he led a unit of rebel fighters inspired by his father, a senior Muslim cleric who famously called for a jihad against the Russians, and for every Chechen to kill 150 Russians.
In 1999, the year that Russia launched the second Chechen War, both father and son had a dramatic change of heart, and switched sides to join their former enemies in a battle against rebel forces that they claimed were more interested in radical Islam than they were in independence. Today, Kadyrov's Kremlin-friendly advisers present that decision as an honourable and pragmatic choice that helped to douse the flames of war while allowing the Chechen people to claim a large measure of autonomy from Moscow.
But, most importantly, in both Russian and Chechen eyes, Kadyrov is the guarantor of peace, no matter how fragile. The man himself insists that Chechens have turned their back on war once and for all, and that the future is bright.
The question is: will he live long enough to see it? Chechen leaders such as Kadyrov's late father have a habit of dying violently, and the self-styled hard man of the Caucasus has many enemies, including embittered elements of the Russian military who can't stomach the fact that a former rebel is now backed by the same Kremlin that sacrificed the lives of so many troops. If Kadyrov does decide to slip the Kremlin's leash, as some analysts believe is inevitable, many in the military would relish the opportunity of bringing him to heel. But that, they know, would probably trigger a third Chechen war.
"The situation seems calm on the surface but it's not. It could blow up at any minute," says Timurlan Ibailov, one of a huddle of unemployed men all seeking work at the marketplace in the Chechen town of Argun.
"We'll only know that things are normal when people stop carrying guns. But look around. At the moment, almost everyone has a gun."