The world is reacting to the murder of Memorial activist Natalia Estemirova. Already a universal consensus has formed as to who is responsible: Ramzan Kadyrov. Everyone seems to be taking their cue from Oleg Orlov, the chairman of Memorial. “I know, I am sure of it, who is guilty for the murder of Natalia. His name is Ramzan Kadyrov,” Orlov said in a statement on Memorial’s site. Orlov accusation stems from a personal confrontation Estemirova had with Kadyrov when he fired her as head of Grozny’s Public Council. “Yes, I am up to my elbows in blood,” Kadyrov allegedly told Estemirova. “And I am not ashamed of it. I have killed and will kill bad people. We are fighting against the republic’s enemies.” Orlov claims that “these words, and further relations with her, were made with offensive language that I am not prepared to repeat, were threats. Therefore, I have no doubt that people subservient to Razman Kadyrov masterminded Estermirova’s murder, who carried out murder, violence and lawlessness in Russia and beyond Russia as well.”
Whether Kadyrov is behind the murder or not is difficult to say with any certainty. However, Orlov doesn’t appear to be accusing Kadyrov of murdering Estemirova directly. He’s blaming Kadyrov for the situation that made her killing possible. Nevertheless, many emphasize that the one thing working against Kadyrov is that Estemirova is the fourth of his opponents killed since 2006: Anna Politkovskaya, Movladi Baisarov, and Ruslan Yamadaev. Not to mention a slew of other Chechen exiles, former militants, and would be challengers. Too much of a coincidence? No says Lev Ponamaryov who made this emphatic statement to the Financial Times in regard to the Kadyrov question:
“When they kill three people in a row in a short space of time who worked on the same subject, then all questions disappear,” he said. “Politkovskaya, Markelov and now Estemirova, they were all investigating abuses by law enforcement and the killings of peaceful citizens in Chechnya – and all these people have been killed . . . It is absolutely clear.”
Kadyrov has responded to these allegations. His press service released this statement to RIA Novosti:
“I am certain that you should think about my rights before you announce to the world that I am guilty of Estemirova’s death,” the former boxer said.
The Chechnya Segodnya news agency reported that Orlov had replied that he had not accused Kadyrov personally of her death, but had meant that, as president, he was responsible for crime in the republic, which saw two brutal separatist wars in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“These criminals are being sought by the whole Chechen Republic,” Kadyrov went on. “A defenseless, innocent woman has been killed. We will do everything to shed light on this.”
Kadyrov told journalists on Wednesday evening that “a search for the criminals will be carried out not only during an official investigation, but also unofficially, according to Chechen traditions.” He did not give further details.
Kadyrov’s lawyers are now preparing a lawsuit against Memorial in response to Orlov’s accusations.
Even if Kadyrov isn’t the culprit behind of all of these abductions, tortures, and killings, it doesn’t bode well for Chechnya or neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia. Nor Russia for that matter. President Medvedev may express outrage over Estemirova’s murder and call accusations against Kadyrov “unacceptable,” but the truth of the matter is that its been only three months since he announced the end of operations in Chechnya, yet low level violence in the region continues unabated. What is clear to analysts is that Moscow’s control over the North Caucasus is at a minimum. And the more Moscow pushes, the more tense the situation becomes on the ground. As Valery Dzutsev explains in regard to Ingushetia,
Moscow’s policy in the region has led increasingly to direct rule from Moscow over Ingushetia, which so far has yielded largely negative results. Local presidential elections were abolished; the Russian security services acted without much consultation with the local authorities; important political issues on the ground, like the issue of contentious Prigorodny region, were ignored. These moves have led to a situation in which the local elites have virtually ceased to have any stake in a stable situation in Ingushetia. Appointing the current political regime in Ingushetia already constitutes de facto direct rule from Moscow, but rule from the federal center will further alienate the local elites and decrease their willingness to maintain order and stability in the republic.
None of this exactly explains who was behind Estemirova’s murder. It does give an impression of the context in which it occurred.
And what of the Russian media? What are they saying about Estemirova’s murder? I don’t know if the story was on the front page of Russia’s dailies, but judging from the number of articles on the internet, it is hard to say that “coverage of the murder in Russia was muted,” as the Financial Times suggests. But the debate isn’t so much about Estemirova, but what the murder says about the wider situation in the region.
Nezavisimaya gazeta, for example, posits a number of questions about why nothing has been done to quell an increasingly violent situation in the region.
On the whole human rights activists accuse the [Chechen] government, and the government blame fighters who murdered Estemirova to destabilize the situation in the republic and overthrow Ramzan Kadyrov. In the meantime, a number of diverse questions arise from the situation.
Why didn’t security organs in Chechnya respond sooner to facts Estermirova provided about abduction and the murder of people? Why only after the abduction and brutal murder of Esterimova were the best investigators from Moscow dispatched to Chechnya and Ingushetia in order to begin an investigation of the following vociferous crimes? Did Moscow really believe the assuring claims of the Chechen government that in the republic “is more secure that any other region in the country”? If they did believe this, that means they didn’t have the situation under control because briefs about a variety of emergency incidents in the republic were regular. If they didn’t believe them, then why did they not undertake the appropriate measures?
. . .
Human rights activists are not the only ones speaking about how there is no democracy, an absence of civil society, and elements of authoritarianism in the Russian Caucasus, but also state officials. They say, who will dare risk their life to stand against a system of lawlessness that exists in the North Caucasus? Perhaps it is better for our government to not contest similar statements today, but to concretely prove to opponents that the government has control over the situation in Russia’s south. And if there isn’t control, then this must honestly be recognized. And have society, experts, and maybe even (restrain our pride) have international human rights organizations openly debate on how to fix the situation.
Moskovskii komsomolets‘ Vadim Rechkalov thinks that while Kadyrov appeared ebullient after the death of Sulim Yamadayev, Estemirova’s death might “might mark the end of his career.” However, he is under no illusions: “Kadyrov will remain the president as long as the Kremlin permits it. If he is to be sacked, it is not going to happen because of anything exposed by the human rights community.”
This brings up the question of how long the Kremlin will tolerate Kadyrov. Rechkalov argues that the Chechen hetman might already be losing his clout.
The president of Chechnya is clearly losing his clout. The counter-terrorism operation regime was lifted, but the promised economic freedoms never materialized. Gunmen in the meantime grew noticeably more active. Clashes with the police and attacks from ambush are reported practically every day. Kadyrov proclaimed gunman ringleader Doku Umarov dead a month ago and said that the splinter groups still in the mountains couldn’t number more than 70 gunmen. He was wrong. Umarov is alive and there must be many more gunmen than 70, if the scope of their operations in the Caucasus is any indication. Plus the latest outrage – assassination of a prominent human rights activist the Western community is already pestering Moscow about. Showing the Kremlin (and the world) that Kadyrov is not in control was clearly one of the criminals’ objectives.
Therefore, it might be better to resist the clamor that Kadyrov is directly responsible for Estemirova’s murder. Because clearly, Kadyrov is more a symptom of a much wider disease that plagues the region and Russia in general.