The abduction and murder of human rights activist Natalia Estemirova in the conflict-ridden Northern Caucasus has been the latest crime to shake Russia's embattled liberal community—and raise the question of whether today's Russia lives not just under an authoritarian regime, but a reign of terror against dissenters. While there are different theories as to the real perpetrators of this vile crime, none are particularly flattering to the Kremlin.
On July 15, 50-year-old Estemirova, a teacher, journalist, and single mother of a 15-year-old daughter, was abducted outside her home in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Later that day, she was found shot to death in neighboring Ingushetia, another turmoil-ridden Russian province of the Northern Caucasus.
Estemirova's death echoes the fatal shooting of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in her Moscow apartment building in 2006 and the brazen murder of human rights attorney Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova on a busy Moscow street in broad daylight last January.
Many critics of Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime (and its incarnation under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev) believe that the Kremlin is ordering and directing these murders to silence critics. Yet, if that is the case, the terror is extremely selective: Other equally or more outspoken critics of the regime have been often harassed, persecuted and censored, but not physically harmed.
Many point out that the Estemirova, Politkovskaya and Markelov murders all have a "Chechen connection": all three were relentless critics of human rights abuses in Chechnya and of its president, Ramzan Kadyrov. In the last several years, after a separatist rebellion and a brutal war, the Kremlin has "pacified" Chechnya by making rebel-turned-loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the region, a de facto dictator. While Kadyrov has put an end to the random slaughter of Chechens by Russian troops, he himself is known for brutal killings and torture of political opponents. Several of his rivals have been assassinated outside Chechnya, in places ranging from Moscow to Dubai. Estemirova (who, unlike Politkovskaya, was not known for strong criticism of the Kremlin) had challenged Kadyrov, and he is known to have threatened her. Oleg Orlov, chairman of Memorial, the human rights group for which Estemirova worked - and which has suspended its activities in Chechnya for the time being - has openly named Kadyrov as the chief culprit.
If Kadyrov is, in fact, killing his critics, this does not necessarily mean that he is doing so with the Kremlin's active blessing: while Kadyrov is ostensibly in his post at Moscow's pleasure, it is very likely that he could not be removed without unleashing a new war. At the very least, however, it means that the Russian government has made a deal with the devil and is condoning assassinations to hold up that deal.
Andrei Piontkovsky, a Hudson Institute fellow and commentator for the independent Russian press, has voiced another theory on the Grani.ru website: the Estemirova murder, he suggests, may be the work of a hard-line Kremlin faction which resents the de facto independence granted Chechnya under Kadyrov's reign, and wants him compromised and removed and Chechnya placed back under the control of the Russian military.
Either way, in a very real sense the real blame does lie with Putin—as a group of Russian human rights activists asserted an open letter published after Estemirova's murder. If nothing else, during his 8-year presidency Putin helped create a climate of hatred and suspicion around human rights activists and journalists who did not toe the government line; he repeatedly depicted dissenters as disloyal and unpatriotic, once accusing them of "scrounging around foreign embassies like jackals." After Politkovskaya's murder, his reaction was to say that "she had minimal influence on political life in Russia" and added, "This murder does much more harm to Russia and Chechnya than any of her publications." Thus, in one breath, the then-Russian president not only dismissed Politkovskaya's work as insignificant but also branded it as harmful to her country.
On the surface, Medvedev's reaction to Estemirova's death couldn't have been more different. Not only did he condemn the murder and promise that the culprits would be found, he also praised Estemirova's work as "important" and "very useful": "She spoke the truth, she openly and perhaps sometimes harshly judged some of the processes taking place in the country, and that's the value of human rights activists, even if they are inconvenient and irritating to the government." But does this amount to anything more than words? In the same breath, Medvedev also complained that the versions of the murder getting the most exposure were the ones "most unacceptable to the government," as if the facts mattered less than convenience.
Despite Medvedev's promises, few concerned Russians—and Westerner—actually expect Estemirova's killers to be found. In a July 21 press release, top United Nations human rights offered the Russian government their help in solving her murder and others like it. As they noted, the assurances that justice will be done "will be worth little unless the authorities take steps that go beyond what has been done in the past, which has all too often led to a cycle of impunity."
No response from the Kremlin has been forthcoming. Meanwhile, on July 23, a rally to honor Estemirova's memory was broken up by riot police in downtown Moscow because it drew more people than stated in the organizers' request for a permit. An amateur video shows a 70-year-old man at the rally being dragged into a bus.
As with some other high-profile murders of people tied to the opposition, the Kremlin has tried to float the theory that the people behind the crime are enemies of Russia seeking to discredit the Russian government. So far, the Russian authorities' own actions bring them far more discredit than enemy subterfuge ever would.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.