Russia: Silencing Chechnya’s human-rights hero

What the murder of human-rights activist Natalya Estemirova says about the politics of Russia's Caucasian republics

Chechnya’s most important human-rights activist was brutally murdered last week, said Yulia Latynina in the Echo Moskvy Radio website—a crime the world would be wise not to ignore. Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped by four men outside her apartment, in the Chechen capital of Grozny, as she left for work. Witnesses said the men shoved her into a car as she yelled, “They’re kidnapping me!” Soon after, she was found shot to death, her face beaten and her hands tied. As the main investigator in Chechnya for the human-rights group Memorial, Estemirova possessed “the entire spectrum of information about the horrors taking place in Chechnya.” She published the testimony of people who had been kidnapped and tortured by thugs loyal to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. And she was the primary source for the reports of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in broad daylight in 2006. Estemirova’s death is a major blow to democracy and justice.

Many people think they know who was responsible for Estemirova’s murder, said Leonid Radzikhovsky in the Moscow Yezhednevny Zhurnal. “We all know this person,” Memorial’s head, Oleg Orlov, declared on the group’s website. “His name is Ramzan Kadyrov.” The Kremlin must surely suspect the Chechen leader, too. But what can it do? Moscow installed Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov, as puppet head of the republic in 2000, after the second of two failed, bloody Chechen wars for independence. The son, Ramzan, took over in 2004 after his father’s death, and proved to be an even more sadistic ruler. Given that Kadyrov has “a personal army of tens of thousands” of militants, any attempt to arrest him for the murder would start a new Chechen war. On the other hand, if the Kremlin tries to suppress evidence linking Kadyrov to the crime, it would only teach the warlord that he can “operate with complete independence from Moscow.”

He already is, said Nikolai Petrov in The Moscow Times. Kadyrov’s opponents “have been mowed down like grass.” Besides Politkovskaya, the murdered include human-rights lawyers, Chechen military commanders, political rivals, and even one of Kadyrov’s former bodyguards. The Kremlin does nothing. As president, Vladimir Putin, anxious to avoid yet another debilitating Chechen war, followed a “policy of appeasing Kadyrov with money and power and giving him all the trappings of real authority.” As prime minister, Putin is continuing that policy, and President Dmitri Medvedev condones it. As long as Kadyrov doesn’t declare independence outright, he is allowed to run his republic like a personal fiefdom.

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The Kremlin will regret allowing the Chechnya situation to fester, said Ivan Petrov and Viktor Yadukha in Moscow’s RBC Daily. The wave of kidnappings and assassinations in Chechnya are just the “tip of the iceberg of instability gradually spreading into the other republics of the Caucasus.” In neighboring Ingushetia, the president recently escaped an assassination attempt. In Dagestan and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, “clashes between gunmen are frequent.” In all those Caucasian republics, the Kremlin gave “carte blanche to the local authorities—and plenty of money—in exchange for the illusion of stability.” That illusion is dissolving. Russia’s southern flank is lawless and violent. Can another war be far off?

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