The recent murders of human right activists in Chechnya raise questions whose answers are both difficult and fraught with contradictions. Who has committed the crimes, and who benefits by them?
Some claim that Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov gave the order to assassinate Natalya Estimirova, Zarema Sadulaeva and her husband, Alik Djabrailov. Relations between the Chechen leader and NGOs are not friendly, and investigations of murders, kidnappings, torture and other human rights violations irritate Mr. Kadyrov. Kadyrov’s reaction to his critics is generally negative, and he has shown a preference to be rid of such investigators.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue that Kadyrov is interested in killing his opponents, and in some ways, he has even attempted to improve his public image. He has invited the leader of Chechen emigration, Ahmed Zakaev, to return to Russia, and offered him the post of Minister of Culture. Kadyrov has also pursued an all-Chechen congress, and expressed an increasing desire to talk to the liberal mass media. Thus, Kadyrov appears to want to show that he is no longer a “cruel Caucasian barbarian.”
Yet Kadyrov also senses the Kremlin’s disappointment in his leadership. The federal center no longer trusts in his absolute ability to control the situation in the republic. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev considers the assassination of the three human right activists a sign of Kadyrov’s weakness. Moscow is also unhappy with Kadyrov’s growing ambitions. In addition to trying his best to remove federal supervisory structures, he constantly claims Chechnya is a “special subject” of the Russian Federation and demands increasing plenary powers.
But if Kadyrov is not responsible for the murders, who could have organized them? There are some possible options.
Maybe they were carried out by forces in Chechnya who want to compromise Kadyrov in the eyes of Moscow, and thereby signal that in time the Center will be obliged to replace him. The tragedy could perhaps also be the work of the wahhabi Islamist opposition, who also use every possible chance to show Kadyrov is not in control -- though that is less likely. One cannot ignore the fact that in Moscow itself, there are those who would like to compromise the Chechen president.
In any event, Kadyrov is obliged to explain his innocence, a responsibility he has never much liked.