MOSCOW—Hundreds of Russians came to Zamoskvorestky bridge by the Kremlin wall this week to mark the 40th day since the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.
Following Russian tradition, a service was held at an Orthodox church in the afternoon. After that Nemtsov’s friends met by his grave to place flowers and remember the man. Everybody agreed that it was important to demand that authorities provide some definite results from the investigation. But people did not think those demands would be met. They did not think they would ever hear an official statement about who had ordered Nemtsov’s murder.
One of the mourners, State Duma Deputy Dmitry Gudkov, told The Daily Beast that the Kremlin’s key officials know who killed Nemtsov and why. “None of us, Nemtsov’s friends, doubt that the investigation has informed the president where the order for Nemtsov’s murder came from.” The decision about what to do with this information is “being made at the top,” Gudkov said.
Moscow investigators are stuck, in fact, since they are unable to question one of the key witnesses (who may also be one of the alleged organizers) of the murder. Investigative committees had been planning to interrogate Ruslan Geremeyev, a former officer of the North Battalion in Chenya, but the detention of Geremeyev had been postponed.
In a recent posts in social media, Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny put the intrigue in simple words. “Lets translate into Russian: the murder was organized my A. Delimakhanov and S. Geremeyev, through Ruslan Geremeyev,” Navalny wrote.
But Ruslan Geremeyev is currently in Chechnya. “Geremeyev is under the Chechen leadership’s protection,” Gudkov explained: “The truth about the order for Nemtsov’s murder is the price for [maintaining] peace in North Caucasus and Putin knows that,” he added.
The pivotal figure in all this talk of conspiracies is Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been Russian President Vladmir Putin’s protégé, political ally and peacekeeper in the most famous of the deeply troubled states in the North Caucasus. After fighting two wars in Chechnya for almost a decade, the Kremlin was not interested in losing Chechnya’s loyalty. “Russia’s almighty special services show weakness now when it comes to undertaking legal actions in Chechnya,” Gudkov suggested.
Chechen politicians, like those in Moscow, have been waiting for the behind-the-scenes decisions to be made about the five Chechen suspects arrested in the Russian capital in connection with the Nemtsov assassination. Investigators have been pulling on strings leading to Kadyrov’s elite North Battalion. But by discrediting his men, Moscow could discredit Kadyrov personally, and that is something President Putin probably is loath to do.
Meanwhile, Kadyrov may have agendas of his own.
In February, Kadyrov declared he would construct a modern training center for tens of thousands of Chechen special forces. Kadyrov told a crowd of 20,000 he was going to “ask the national leader of Russia [Putin] to consider us a volunteer special detachment of the Supreme Commander that is ready to defend Russia, its stability and borders, and to fulfill a military task of any complexity.”
In essence, Kadyrov is adding military muscle to his already considerable political clout and his own particular approach to reviving Islam as a bulwark against jihadis.
So far the North Caucasus region, including Chechnya, has demonstrated support for Putin’s United Russia party that is much higher than in most other regions. Indeed, in 2012 Chechnya’s official election result was 99.5 percent of support for United Russia—something to take into account when making a decision about Geremeyev’s questioning.
While Moscow was considering what to do, Kadyrov packed several dozen of Chechnya’s leading bureaucrats, top religious and security figures, their families, and their racehorses into airplanes for a trip to the Middle East earlier this month.
The Chechen leader’s private horse, Candy Boy, raced in the Dubai World Cup. And when the race was over, Kadyrov and his entourage stayed for another week.
In a recent interview, a senior official in the North Caucasus, who spoke on condition he not be named, told The Daily Beast this was more than a vacation for the Chechen strongman. “It is better for him to stay out of public attention for a while,” the official said. “Every time somebody’s killed, Moscow immediately makes Chechens the scapegoats.”
It is unusual for Russia to see a governor and his apparatus traveling abroad for more than a week. Since the Crimean crises last spring, the Kremlin has imposed travel bans for over 4 million government employees; especially those who hold state secrets.
But the Chechen leader, referred to by his employees, depending on their status, either as the Ruler or the Brother, hardly keeps his escapades quiet: Several times a day during his Dubai sojourn, Kadyrov published images and comments on his personal Instagram account documenting his time in the United Arab Emirates. One of the latest posts published by Kadyrov, last Friday morning, showed 27 Chechen officials gathered in the shadow of palm trees with their thumbs up.
In the group photograph, Kadyrov posed with his cousin and close aide Adam Delimkhanov, a member of the Russian parliament and deputy head of the Chechen regional government. Delimkhanov’s name has appeared for almost a decade in investigative reports covering high-profile assassinations. In 2006, the former deputy prime minister of Chechnya, Beslan Gantamirov, said Delimkhanov had taken part in organizing the murder in downtown Moscow of a Kadyrov rival, the FSB intelligence service’s Colonel Movladi Baisarov. In 2009, Dubai police accused Delimkhanov of ordering the murder of another Kadyrov enemy, a decorated Russian war hero, Sulim Yamadayev, but apparently they had no trouble letting him into their country this month.
Kadyrov’s reasons for taking a break from Russia go beyond the bad air around the Nemtsov murder, according to experts both in Chechnya and Moscow. Last month, two Chechen residents, Badrudi Djabrailov and Ramzan Kachalov, were sentenced to nine to 12 years in a penal colony for an assassination attempt on the mayor of the city of Khasavyurt, in Dagestan, the region bordering Chechnya. Kadyrov’s adviser, Shaa Turlayev, was declared a wanted man as the alleged organizer of the crime.
But the Chechen leader seems to have lost none of his optimism: In his most recent Instagram he has both of his thumbs up.
In many respects, Russia’s future and stability depend on the results of the Nemtsov murder investigation as well as the Kremlin’s willingness to undertake reforms in all spheres. Deputy Gudkov suggested forming a special parliamentary commission to investigate the assassination. “The Kremlin now has an opportunity to choose a path to peace with the opposition; that would mean the real results on Nemtsov’s murder case, reforms and fair elections in 2016,” Gudkov said.