Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Nemtsov’s Assassination and the Chechen Trace

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By Emil Souleimanov (03/18/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)

After the murder on February 27 of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a group of Chechens allegedly led by a former kadyrovets, have become the main suspects of the ongoing investigation. Whatever the outcome of the trial, the “Chechen factor” in general and Ramzan Kadyrov’s increasing role in Russia's internal and external affairs in particular, seem to establish a pattern that could leave an imprint on Russian politics for years to come.

BACKGROUND: Immediately after Nemtsov’s murder, the prosecutors came up with a number of “hot” traces – including the “Muslim” one. Aside from theories on Nemtsov’s assassination based on jealousy, his business activities, and involving Ukrainian ultra-rightists or Russian volunteers returning from the Donbas battlefield, a main direction of the investigation focused on the “Muslim” or North Caucasian trace. According to this theory, Nemtsov might have been murdered by Muslims who resented his positive stance on the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine that was attacked in early January due to its repeated publication of caricatures depicting Prophet Muhammad.

Soon thereafter, a group of Chechens was arrested – in Chechnya and in neighboring Ingushetia. Among them was Zaur Dadayev, former deputy commander of the battalion Sever (North). Interestingly, this battalion, established in 2004, has been formally subordinated to the Ministry of Interior, yet is de facto subordinated to the Chechnya’s strongman Kadyrov through its commander Alibek Delimkhanov. He is the brother of Adam Delimkhanov, in turn Kadyrov’s cousin, right hand, and declared successor, and a member of the Russian parliament for United Russia.

Dadayev, a kadyrovets with many years of experience in fighting the local insurgency, initially confessed to murdering Nemtsov because of his criticism of Islam and Kadyrov. But his alleged accomplice, Anzor Gubashev, has vehemently denied any involvement in the murder. Kadyrov has intervened, calling Dadayev a “true Russian patriot,” a “brave warrior,” and a “strong believer,” who was greatly offended by Nemtsov’s support for the anti-Islamic cartoons. Soon, Dadayev withdrew his confession, stating that it was forced upon him by the investigators through torture.

On March 10, Moskovskiy komsomolets, a leading Russian daily, published leaked evidence – pictures of the alleged murderers including Dadayev, in a car that was spotted in the place of the incident, close to the Red Square. According to the daily, the Chechens had been following Nemtsov since fall 2014, that is, long before the office of Charlie Hebdo was targeted. While this information may be untrue, it is notable that a day after the publication of this information, the investigators paid a surprising visit to the apartment of Eva Merkacheva, co-author of the leaked materials and additional texts critical of the official version, accusing her of illicitly visiting the arrested Dadayev a few days before. According to the chief editor of Moskovskiy komsomolets, Pavel Gusev, the investigators “tried to explain what and how she should write in the newspaper.”

IMPLICATIONS: Regardless whether the information on Chechen involvement in Nemtsov’s murder is ultimately substantiated, it is highly unlikely that they could have surveilled Nemtsov without being detected by Russian secret services. According to independent observers, Nemtsov – along with other key Russia-based opposition leaders – has been under constant surveillance by dozens of Russian secret service agents. The prospect of a “color revolution” in Russia has been a nightmare for Russian elites for years, and Nemtsov – along with Alexander Navalny – belonged to the most prominent figures of the Russian opposition movement, who never hesitated to criticize the regime or to use hard facts in his criticism. Importantly, he was perhaps the only charismatic leader who had first-hand experience of high-ranking managerial positions in Russian authorities. Because regime-controlled media routinely reproaches opposition leaders for their lack of knowledge and experience of governance – in sharp contrast to Putin and his associates – Nemtsov’s past position as first deputy prime minister in the pre-Putin era was unique. From time to time, the secret services leaked information on Nemtsov’s private life to the media in an apparent effort to compromise him.

It is indeed very unlikely that the alleged Chechen assassins – or any alien group – could have surveilled and plotted to attack Nemtsov without being detected by the secret service agents in charge of keeping a 24/7 eye on him. In addition, according to some observers, the assassination itself would have required months of preparation given its perfect timing and impudence in the immediate vicinity of the Kremlin, one of the most densely surveilled areas in the world. Of course, unless the attackers were collaborating with the secret services or surveillance was lifted at the immediate time of Nemtsov’s assassination.

Also, if the version centered on the arrested Chechens as the assassins is to be taken seriously, it is very unlikely that they worked on their own, without Kadyrov’s prior knowledge or consent. In fact, kadyrovtsy are reputed for their loyalty to the Kadyrov clan in general and to Kadyrov himself in particular. According to insiders, kadyrovtsy are known to retaliate for incautious remarks, let alone questionable actions, in Kadyrov’s direction by beating or killing the offenders. There have also been cases of kadyrovtsy and their relatives being punished in exactly the same brutal way.

Dadayev, a former and experienced kadyrovets, must have been aware of the fatal repercussions for himself or his relatives for an unsanctioned assassination of such a key figure of the Russian opposition. Moreover, Dadayev seems to lack personal motivation to target Nemtsov. Nemtsov never criticized Islam; nor did he support the Muhammad cartoons. Rather, he expressed solidarity with the French magazine’s right to free speech, similarly to Vladimir Putin and a number of other Russian politicians. According to Dadayev’s mother and some people in Chechnya who have known him, he has never been a particularly strong believer. In addition, unlike for example Anna Politkovskaya, Nemtsov never focused on Kadyrov or Chechnya.

CONCLUSIONS: An additional possibility is that Nemtsov could have been targeted by Kadyrov as a favor to Putin – without Putin’s consent. Yet this version also appears shaky. In fact, Kadyrov is existentially dependent on Putin for the survival of his regime, as well as his personal survival, as Chechnya depends on money transfers from Moscow and Kadyrov and his clan members are in a latent blood feud with hundreds, perhaps even thousands of locals (see the 12/10/14 issue of the CACI Analyst).

Kadyrov has been extremely circumspect not to alienate Putin. For instance, he even downplayed the responsibility of Soviet authorities for deporting Chechens, and did his best not to raise the topic during the Sochi Olympic Games, being aware of the sensitivity of the deportations in Chechnya, and of the Olympics for Putin. Kadyrov has used every single opportunity – including the ongoing Ukraine crisis and the incessant paranoia in the Russian elite of “color scenarios” – to express his unlimited personal loyalty to Putin, styling himself as a guardian of Russia’s internal unity against the country’s rediscovered “fifth column” or a devout Russian patriot in defense of Russians in Ukraine and Russian interests  elsewhere (see the 10/15/14 issue of the CACI Analyst). Against this backdrop, the likelihood that Kadyrov, a smart and prudent politician with a sense of context – despite his unsophisticated appearance – would risk instigating and organizing the perhaps most vociferous political assassination in Russia in recent times is quite low. Of course, unless the “Dadayev trace” was forged deliberately to divert attention at the initial – key for the course of the investigation – stage of the manhunt.

AUTHORS’ BIO: Emil Aslan Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists, co-authored with Huseyn Aliyev (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang, 2007).

Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons

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