Boris Nemtsov had not been dead a week when suspects in his murder were named and arrested. Assassinated on February 27, 2015, President Vladimir Putin’s political foe had sparred with the Russian government for a long time. True to form, Nemtsov was in the process of organizing a rally against Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine when he was killed. Abruptly shot four times in the back while speaking to a friend near Moscow’s Red Square, he died soon after. Suspicion fell upon the Kremlin. But, instead, five men from the troubled region of Chechnya were arrested –a common occurrence in Russia.
Russia has a long history of holding Chechens accountable for political crimes. In 1944, Josef Stalin accused the entire Chechen population of collaborating with the Nazis. In 1999, a series of deadly Moscow apartment bombings were used as one pretext for starting the bloody Second Chechen War. In the subsequent years, the murders of anti-Kremlin journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov (in 2004 and 2006 respectively) were pinned on individuals from Chechnya. As the joke goes: “When in doubt, blame the Chechens.”
Animosity between Russia and Chechnya runs deep. Two wars in the 1990s devastated the volatile region, and spurts of violence have been frequent since then. Cultural differences are a prominent and contentious issue: Chechnya is overwhelmingly Muslim, whereas Russia heavily favors the Russian Orthodox Church. Most likely for this reason, Russia has a legacy of xenophobia towards the Chechen population. Many incidents of discrimination have been documented, and Chechens remain a frequent target of bias throughout the country.
Ironically, Chechnya’s current local authority is both pro-Moscow and Islamist. Ramzan Kadyrov, son of former religious separatist leader Akhmad Kadyrov, rules Chechnya with an iron fist on Moscow’s behalf. The Kadyrovtsy, a nickname for Kadyrov’s rumored private militia, is also responsible for a number of severe human rights violations. Kadyrov is, interestingly, both a Putin ally and an associate of Zaur Dadayev, the primary Chechen accused of Nemtsov’s murder.
Dadayev initially confessed to the crime and suggested his motive was anger at Nemtsov’s defense of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. But questions about the confession quickly arose. Andrei Babushkin, one of Russia’s leading human rights defenders, along with journalist Yeva Merkachyova visited Dadayev. Both reported that Dadayev had confessed to the murder under torture, and that his body showed signs of abuse. Babushkin and Merkachyova have since been banned from the prison, and questioned by investigators regarding their visit. On March 11, Russia’s Investigative Committee ruled their sharing of details regarding their visit illegal. Further legal action against them is currently pending.
Apart from evidence of torture, there are numerous reasons why allegations against the Chechen suspects should raise suspicions. The Washington Post reported that Ilya Yashin, an ally of Nemtsov, dismissed the Charlie Hebdo theory as “nonsensical”and a ploy. Even Nemtsov’s eldest daughter has said Putin is at least indirectly responsible for the assassination, if not directly liable for the assassination.
Despite these many questions, however, there has been little effort to get to the bottom of what happened. Of course, this is hardly shocking. In Putin’s Russia, those who have spoken out against the Kremlin have all too often faced death threats, making it unlikely anyone will dissent from the official line on Nemtsov’s death..
Dadayev and his accused jail-mates will still stand trial, in a proceeding that is likely to be anything but free and fair. In the meantime, Putin will continue to consolidate his power while his opponents perish. And without question the usual suspects will be rounded up in connection with their murders.