A Showdown in Moscow’s Power Elite

A political killing in the center of Moscow triggers an open feud between two of Russia's most powerful clans.

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The news that Russia’s most powerful law enforcement agencies have decided to target people linked to one of Russia’s most powerful politicians has been dominating the talk in Moscow lately. Last week officials announced that they had arrested five suspects in the killing of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was gunned down right outside the walls of the Kremlin on Feb. 27. Among those detained is Zaur Dadayev, who served in an elite security force that answers to Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic. The others were friends or relatives of Dadayev.

The arrests have prompted a flurry of speculation about a rift within Russia’s power elite. On one side is Kadyrov, a brutal autocrat who has kept tight control over his fractious republic with the blessing of President Vladimir Putin. On the other is a coterie of top-ranking Moscow security officials who, it’s said, have long resented Kadyrov’s inroads into areas they consider their own preserve. Still, until recently the police and the FSB (the Federal Security Service, the successor agency of the Soviet-era KGB) had shown a notable lack of interest in calling Kadyrov’s loyalists to order. Now, at a stroke, all that has changed.

After the news of his men’s arrest broke, Kadyrov waited almost a day before issuing a reaction; it’s likely that he spent the time working the phones to all of his contacts in the Moscow power elite. He then published a post to his Instagram account in which he explicitly defended the main suspect, calling Dadayev a “patriot of Russia.” (It soon became known that he had recently awarded a medal to Dadayev.) Meanwhile, the radio station Echo of Moscow ran an online poll in which it asked listeners whom they would pick in a conflict between Kadyrov and the FSB. The overwhelming majority, 59 percent, said they’d support the FSB. Only 6 percent chose to side with Kadyrov.

This dramatic revelation of serious conflict at the highest levels of Russian power comes at a delicate moment. The assassination of Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, was enough of a jolt in its own right; never before has Putin’s Russia experienced the murder of such a high-profile politician (and right in the heart of Moscow at that). The mysterious vanishing act of Putin himself, who has just re-appeared in public after staying out of sight for nearly 10 days, added to the jitters. What in the world is going on?

Kadyrov’s declaration of support for the lead suspect was a clear signal to his opponents: Putin’s man in Chechnya is not happy that his men have been humiliated in Moscow. Images of security forces with Russian tricolor badges on their uniforms hauling the bearded Chechens into court in handcuffs, arms twisted behind their backs, astonished many viewers. (The photo above shows three of the men in custody in Moscow’s Basmanny district court.) As political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky noted, “For the first time in his 15-year long rule Putin has run into a really serious problem: a virtually open conflict between the two pillars of his power, the federal security establishment and Ramzan Kadyrov.” As Belkovsky correctly noted, the Russian president now finds himself confronting a serious dilemma. Putin’s power depends to a large extent on his good relations with the security services, since they are responsible for carrying out many of his most important policies as well as ensuring his personal security. On the other he is also dependent on the support of Kadyrov, who has kept a lid on the restive North Caucasus. Belkovsky says that Putin has opted, essentially, to sit this one out, choosing to lie low until the situation resolves itself.

But that hasn’t stopped Russians from airing theories about the scandal anyway. The popular opposition leader and blogger Aleksei Navalny jumped into the fray by claiming that the man who ordered the hit on Nemtsov was Ruslan Geremeyev, the son of a senior politician. Navalny also referred to a report in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta (whose own investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered by a group of Chechens in 2006) that blamed someone it referred to merely as “Ruslan.” The paper said that it couldn’t reveal his full identity, but noted that the man in question had served in the same Chechen security unit as Dadayev. Navalny declared that they also had Geremeyev in mind.

Chechens have an unnerving tendency to crop up whenever high-profile contract killings occur. In a TV interview shortly following the arrest of Kadyrov’s men, the journalist Gregory Shvedov, who edits a website specializing in the politics of the Caucasus region, recalled two other killings that involved Chechens named “Dadayev.” Russian lawmaker Ruslan Yamadayev was gunned down in the center of Moscow in 2008; that same year a Chechen oppositionist, Umar Israilov, was assassinated in Vienna. The killings of Nemtsov, Yamadayev, and Israilov all had the “same handwriting,” Shvedov said. Nemtsov was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin’s policies. Yamadayev had a long history of tense relations with Kadyrov. And shortly before his murder Israilov filed a complaint in an international court of human rights charging Kadyrov with direct responsibility for acts of murder and torture. A Moscow court ultimately found Aslanbek Dadayev guilty of Yamadayev’s murder, sentencing him to 15 years in prison. In 2009, a Viennese court sentenced three Chechens to life terms in jail for the killing of Israilov — and one of them was a man named Suleiman Dadayev.

Even the most outspoken Russian public figures have generally been cautious about criticizing Kadyrov. As Moscow journalist Sergei Darenko observed recently, “You don’t survive long once Kadyrov names you as his personal enemy.” Oleg Orlov, the director of the human rights organization Memorial, is one of the few who has dared: Orlov blamed Kadyrov for issuing a death threat to Natalia Estemirov, a prominent human rights defender who worked for Memorial, in a meeting just months before she was killed. Estemirova was abducted outside of her house in Grozny and murdered in 2009. “I know who is guilty of Natalia’s murder. His name is Ramzan Kadyrov,” Orlov said in a statement posted on Memorial’s website. “Ramzan already threatened Natalia, insulted her, considered her a personal enemy. He has made it impossible for rights activists to work in Chechnya.” That Orlov has so far remained alive makes him something of an exception (though Kadyrov did take him to court for slander).

In my three interviews with Ramzan Kadyrov I asked him about the allegations of murder and torture ascribed to him in a number of human rights reports. Kadyrov dismissed them all. In one of his latest Instagram posts Kadyrov blames Europe and the United States for aiming to create chaos in Russia and discredit everybody who was faithful to president Putin. “The organizers of that campaign know that the Akhmat-Khadzhi Kadyrov team will be with President of Russia under any circumstances. They know that our people are united, that we all support Vladimir Putin as one, and that’s why they try to smear us.” The problem for Kadyrov, of course, is that this time it’s not the outsiders who are, implicitly, accusing him of responsibility for crimes, but officials at the very heart of the Russian security establishment.

So who, then, actually ordered the killing of Nemtsov? That, of course, is the big question — and on March 14 FSB investigators came up with an official version that could offer Putin a possible path out of his dilemma. Nemtsov’s murder, they declared, was actually ordered by Adam Osmayev, the Chechen leader of a Ukrainian battalion that has been fighting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

That theory was immediately rejected by the friends and relatives of Nemtsov. The socialite-turned-oppositionist Ksenia Sobchak, who knew Nemtsov well, declared that the charges against Osmayev had more to do with anti-Ukrainian propaganda than with a viable scenario. (Among other things, the FSB claim failed to explain why a pro-Ukrainian Chechen would have targeted Nemtsov, who was a strong critic of Moscow’s policies in Ukraine.) Sobchak recently had to hire personal bodyguards after her own name turned up on a reported hit list.

Despite the government’s efforts to address the general confusion, the Russian public is struggling to find answers to a growing number of questions. The way things have been going lately, though, no one is expecting plausible answers anytime soon.


Anna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship and the 2015 IWMF Courage in Journalism award. Twitter: @annanemtsova