The view from the ground.

Boris Nemtsov and the Convenient Chechen Connection

Russian investigators have followed the trail of the opposition leader’s murder to an implausible motive and an unlikely suspect. And that’s OK with them.

Court for the murder of politician Boris Nemtsov
Court for the murder of politician Boris Nemtsov
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MARCH 8: One of five suspect Tamerlan Eskerkhanov (R) detained over the killing of Russian opposition activist Boris Nemtsov is escorted by a policeman in a court corridor on March 8, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. Two Chechens, Zaur Dadayev and Anzor Gubashev were officially accused of the murder of Boris Nemtsov and three others are still suspects. (Photo by Sergey Bobylev/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images)

MOSCOW — A little more than a week after opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in central Moscow just feet away from the Kremlin, Russian state investigators claim to have found the culprit, and it’s not who anyone expected: lone-wolf Islamist radicals.

MOSCOW — A little more than a week after opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in central Moscow just feet away from the Kremlin, Russian state investigators claim to have found the culprit, and it’s not who anyone expected: lone-wolf Islamist radicals.

Nemtsov’s acquaintances, independent experts, and even one of Russia’s biggest newspapers have ridiculed this hypothesis, sensing that it has all the markings of a cover-up. While the exact origins remain murky — and the full story may never be discovered — the high-profile killing likely involved influential organizers from Russia’s troubled republic of Chechnya, not a devout fighter angry about insults to the Prophet Mohammed.

After Nemtsov was killed with four shots to the back, Russia’s liberal opposition began implicating the Kremlin in the murder of one of its most outspoken opponents. At the very least, President Vladimir Putin’s talk of a “fifth column” and the state-controlled media’s paranoia over Ukraine had created an atmosphere of “hatred” that led to the killing, some argued.

But Russia’s powerful Investigative Committee, which answers directly to the president, seemed to ignore the possibility that this killing was a political murder organized by a rival inside Russia, suggesting instead that it had been the result of a domestic or business dispute or was linked to the new pro-Western government in Ukraine that Nemtsov had vocally supported.

Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin then put forward something else entirely: Investigators were looking into an Islamist connection because Nemtsov had supposedly “received threats in connection with his opinion about the shooting at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.”

This “Islamic scenario” seemed the oddest — and least plausible — motive. But then the pieces of evidence began falling into place behind it. Sources reportedly told Ren TV on March 2 that Nemtsov’s murder had been executed by natives of Russia’s mostly Muslim Caucasus region.

Days later, five men from the Caucasus were arrested, and two of them — Zaur Dadayev and Anzor Gubashev — were charged with Nemtsov’s murder. Dadayev had been a deputy commander in Chechnya’s North police battalion, which is run by the brother of Adam Delimkhanov, an MP from Putin’s United Russia party whom Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov has called his successor. A sixth suspect, Beslan Shavanov, who reportedly killed himself with a grenade when police came for him, had also served in the unit.

At a Sunday, March 8, hearing in a Moscow court to officially arrest the suspects, Dadayev raised one finger, a common Muslim sign of faith, for the cameras and said, “I love the Prophet Mohammed.” A judge later told journalists that Dadayev had confessed to the crime during questioning. The other suspects denied their involvement.

According to a Rosbalt news agency report on Sunday citing unnamed law enforcement sources, Dadayev told investigators that he decided to act when he learned in January that Nemtsov had criticized Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. That same day, Kadyrov reinforced the emerging Charlie Hebdo motive in a post on Instagram (his preferred social media platform). “All those who know Dadayev say that he is a deeply religious person and that he, like all Muslims, was shocked by the actions of Charlie [Hebdo] and comments in support of printing the cartoons,” Kadyrov wrote. Although he admitted Dadayev could be guilty of a “grievous crime,” he almost seemed to endorse it, saying the alleged killer “could not have taken a step against Russia.”

But the unlikely story pinning it all on Dadayev is already starting to unravel. Yeva Merkacheva, a member of a prisoners’ rights monitoring group who also writes for the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, which has often repeated the Kremlin line in the past, reported that when she was allowed to visit Dadayev in Moscow’s Lefortovo detention center, he told her law enforcement had held him with a bag over his head for two days and pressured him to confess.

“They were yelling the whole time, ‘You killed Nemtsov?’ I was answering no,” Dadayev said, according to Merkacheva. “When I was detained, I was with a friend, my former subordinate Ruslan Yusupov, and they said that if I agreed they would let him go. I agreed. I thought that I would save him and they would take me to Moscow alive. Otherwise what happened to Shavanov would have happened to me.”

Another report in Moskovsky Komsomolets questioned the emerging narrative that Dadayev killed Nemtsov over Charlie Hebdo. On Tuesday, the newspaper published two images captured by surveillance cameras showing what it said were two of the suspects near Nemtsov’s home in a ZAZ Chance, the same car the authorities have said the suspects used to escape the crime scene. But according to the paper, the surveillance footage was from last autumn, long before the Charlie Hebdo attack. “If we suppose that at that time the suspects were already following the politician, that rules out the main motive,” Moskovsky Komsomolets’s report said.

Ilya Yashin, a political ally who is completing Nemtsov’s unfinished report on Russian military support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, wrote on Facebook and Twitter that the Charlie Hebdo motive was the “result of a political order from the Kremlin” to deflect any blame from Putin or his Chechen ally Kadyrov. “Investigators’ nonsensical theory about Islamist motives in Nemtsov’s killing suits the Kremlin and takes Putin out of the firing line,” Yashin said.

Like much of Russia’s liberal opposition, Nemtsov made statements in support of the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. But still he seems an odd target for a spontaneous Islamist revenge killing: His only major statement on the Paris attack in January was a blog post saying that “when some here write that the caricaturists are to blame, that they insulted the Prophet Mohammed, they are justifying murders.”

That was written before Kadyrov held a massive rally in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, against the “immorality” of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. Kadyrov promised at the time that he wouldn’t “allow the name of the prophet to be insulted with impunity.” According to Geydar Dzhemal, chairman of the Islamic Committee of Russia, Nemtsov’s comments “didn’t contain criticism of Islam or the prophet.”

Philip Kegeles, who until December worked as Nemtsov’s press secretary in Yaroslavl, where he was a member of the regional parliament, told Foreign Policy that though Nemtsov regularly received threats on social media, he couldn’t “remember any threats with a Muslim context.”

If Dadayev carried out the killing, he was most likely paid or ordered to do it, several analysts told Foreign Policy. In that case, the trail would lead to Chechnya’s military and political leadership — and even as far as to Kadyrov himself.

Oleg Orlov, the chairman of the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial, wrote in a blog post that it would be extremely unlikely that Dadayev killed Nemtsov “without a direct or indirect order from the head of the republic of Chechnya.” Although Kadyrov in his Instagram post said Dadayev had already left the North battalion at the time of the killing, a North Caucasus Interior Ministry official later told the TASS state news agency that the suspected killer had been on vacation and was only dismissed the day after the murder.

“An officer of the battalion, even a former one, would have to be insane to commit a huge crime without receiving approval from the leadership,” said Orlov, who has worked in the Caucasus. “Because in today’s Chechnya, a whole family may have to answer for their relative’s disobedience.”

But several other experts argued the instigator was more likely someone close to Kadyrov rather than the Chechen leader himself. Novaya Gazeta, a well-respected independent newspaper, reported that Putin had been informed last week that Nemtsov was on a Chechen “hit list” along with other opposition leaders. Putin was told that the likely organizer of Nemtsov’s killing was a former North battalion officer named Ruslan who is related to a high-ranking Chechen official close to Kadyrov, Novaya Gazeta said. (Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told radio station Ekho Moskvy that reports of a “hit list” are absurd.)

Although Novaya Gazeta said it wouldn’t print Ruslan’s last name, anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny wrote on Twitter that it was likely Ruslan Geremeyev, a North battalion officer and relative of Senator Suleiman Geremeyev. The senator is a cousin of Kadyrov’s close associate, Delimkhanov, and was appointed to the post by Kadyrov in 2009.

But why would a high-ranking Chechen official give the order to kill Nemtsov? Gregory Shvedov, who edits the Caucasian Knot, an online news site dedicated to the region, said the crime could have been organized by a security or military official “who heard many times how upset Kadyrov was with Nemtsov and wanted to please him.”

Here, Charlie Hebdo may have in fact played an indirect role, with eager Kadyrov subordinates turning to Nemtsov as a stand-in for self-exiled Putin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was also on the Chechen hit list, Novaya Gazeta reported. After Khodorkovsky tweeted on the day of the Paris killings that “tomorrow there shouldn’t be one publication without a caricature of the prophet,” Kadyrov said the former oligarch turned Putin foe had “announced himself the enemy of all Muslims in the world.”

“That means he’s my personal enemy,” Kadyrov wrote on Instagram.

Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst in Moscow, believes Nemtsov’s murder could have been an attempt by anti-Western hard-liners — like Kadyrov — to disrupt the peace process that Putin and European leaders have embarked on in eastern Ukraine. Many Chechens have been fighting with Moscow-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, and Novaya Gazeta reported that some were former or current members of the North battalion.

But though there seems to be much left to uncover in the Nemtsov case, all signs suggest that the investigation won’t move past Dadayev to any possible higher-placed organizers. On Monday, Putin presented Kadyrov with an Order of Honor, a civilian award for achievements in government or society, even though the Chechen leader had already received the country’s highest award, Hero of the Russian Federation, in 2004. Oreshkin said this was a signal to investigators to avoid implicating Kadyrov in the murder.

As if on cue, the authorities reportedly became convinced that Dadayev had acted alone, according to a Rosbalt report on Tuesday. “Studying the evidence now included in the case and the testimony of witnesses and the main defendant, we can draw a clear conclusion. Nemtsov’s murder was the personal initiative of Dadayev and Shavanov,” the news agency cited an unnamed law enforcement official as saying. “They didn’t have any other clients.”

And that works out for everyone in power, in the Kremlin and in Chechnya. “Everything seems to say that Kadyrov is [Putin’s] guy; don’t touch Kadyrov,” Oreshkin said. “Do what you will with Dadayev, but don’t get evidence out of him that would point to a higher-up.”

Photo credit: Sergey Bobylev/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images

Alec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications. Twitter: @asluhn

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