Why Nemtsov’s murder got pinned on Chechens

The Kremlin’s version of the murder of President Vladimir Putin’s longtime opponent Boris Nemtsov has now coalesced. The main suspect is a Chechen who apparently decided to punish Nemtsov for his defense of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed published in the French weekly Charlie Hebdo.

But this story has obvious weaknesses – beginning with the fact that Nemtsov wasn’t an anti-Islam radical. If anything, the official narrative about the assassination makes the involvement of the Kremlin and its allies in Chechnya seem more, not less, likely.

Over the weekend, five men were detained on suspicion of organizing and carrying out Nemtsov’s murder. All of them are natives of Chechnya, the formerly separatist region in the Russian North Caucasus that is now run like a personal fiefdom by Ramzan Kadyrov, the former separatist field commander who switched sides in 1999 and pledged loyalty to Putin. One of the five, Zaur Dadaev, admitted having played a key role in the assassination.

Under Putin, Russian prosecutors have often drawn a “Chechen trail” in high-profile murder cases: the government has found it convenient to pin crimes on the residents of the country’s most restive region. Since Chechnya’s wars of secession in the 1990s and 2000s, in which thousands of Russian soldiers lost their lives, Chechens have been highly unpopular in Russia.

In 2006, I was called as a witness in the trial of three Chechen men for the 2004 murder of Paul Khlebnikov, editor of the Russian version of Forbes magazine, where I was publisher at the time of his death. The prosecutor maintained the men had been sent by a retired Chechen field commander about whom Khlebnikov had written an unflattering book. Since the book had been published in 2003 and Khlebnikov never took any security precautions in the interim, I said I found the connection implausible. The jury later acquitted the three men.

Chechens were convicted for organizing the 2006 killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose coverage of Chechnya was controversial but hardly more so than that of many other journalists. I still don’t understand what motive they could have had.

In the Nemtsov case, a source close to the investigation told the news agency Rosbalt that Dadaev’s testimony touched on Nemtsov’s alleged anti-Islamic politics. This echoes an Instagram post by Chechen leader Kadyrov, who knew Dadaev personally. (The suspect served in a Chechen special forces unit, performed courageously in action against separatists and was awarded Russian service medals.) “Everyone who knew Zaur says he is a deeply devout person,” Kadyrov wrote, “and also that, like all Muslims, he was shaken by the actions of Charlie and the comments in favor of printing those cartoons.”

Nemtsov’s friends find that explanation hard to believe. “Nemtsov never said a bad word about Islam,” Ilya Yashin, an anti-Putin political activist, wrote on Facebook. “Of course he criticized the terrorists who shot up Charlie Hebdo, but many public personalities did that louder and more harshly.” Vladimir Milov, a close Nemtsov ally and collaborator, was also unimpressed. “Nemtsov always spoke cautiously about Islam,” he wrote on LiveJournal. “When we, some of his colleagues in opposition organizations, said much harsher things, he always pulled us back, saying we needed to be tolerant… Chechens have no serious motive to kill him.”

I have only encountered one instance of Nemtsov discussing the Charlie Hebdo attack, a post on the website of Ekho Moskvy Radio. “When some people write the cartoonists were themselves to blame for insulting the prophet Muhammad, they justify murder,” he wrote. “As a young religion, Islam is still in the Middle Ages and it will be a long struggle to beat the Islamic inquisition.”

That could have been insulting to a fanatic, but, given the total lack of political correctness in the Russian media, Nemtsov’s remarks wouldn’t have put him among the top 100 targets for jihadis.

It’s important to note that, until recently, Dadaev served Kadyrov loyally. So perhaps the latter is to blame; Kadyrov has, in fact, expressed the opinion that Charlie Hebdo cartoonists set themselves up for slaughter by mocking the prophet. Still, as a major recipient of subsidies from Moscow, he probably wouldn’t have risked ordering a hit on a politician a few hundred yards from the Kremlin – unless he knew he needn’t fear punishment. Perhaps coincidentally, Putin signed a decree today awarding Kadyrov the Order of Merit “for work-related achievements and an active public role.” The Russian president doesn’t seem to mind he was honoring a man who had praised Nemtsov’s suspected murderer, after his arrest, as a “fearless, courageous serviceman”.

It seems safe to say that, as long as Kadyrov runs Chechnya for Putin, the Russian leader will have an unending supply of loyal cut-throats available to fight where Russia isn’t doing any official fighting, whether in the Russian capital or in eastern Ukraine. (There have been well-substantiated reports of Kadyrov’s fighters helping Ukraine’s anti-Kiev rebels.)

The shooting of a Putin opponent by a Kadyrov underling has probably brought the sovereign and vassal closer together. Putin’s enemies are Kadyrov’s, too, after all. Just don’t suggest they’ve coordinated a hybrid war on the streets of Moscow. Their supporters would say it’s all just a coincidence. Those Chechens can be hotheaded, you know.

Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.