A Russian Reign of Terror?

The murder of human rights activist Natalia Estemirova

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. 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Warty||

    See, a nice Makarov like that is about as sexy as pistols get, pussy-ass caliber or not.

  • hmm||

    It couldn't have been Putin. He was busy in a yellow submarine increasing his manliness.

  • Xeones||

    It is not possible for Putin's manliness to become more than it is.

  • Mad Max||

    Putin is one pet cat away from being a Bond villain.

  • ||

    I am a big fan of the magazine The Atlantic. One of the best articles I ever read was a cover story entitled "Russia is Finished." It was all about how Russia has too many problems and issues to ever truly become a "healthy" country. It is definitely worth reading (and The Atlantic is definitely worth subscribing to).

  • KingShamus||

    Swede, the Atlantic employs Andrew Sullivan. Ergo, they will never get a nickel from me.

  • ||

    I used to LOVE the Atlantic, but they took a massive turn for the worse after they moved to DC and changed their editorial staff. Now it's just a political rag and an embarrassment. Their 150th anniversary issue was basically a partisan circle-jerk, and lately every issue has been about politics, foodie-talk, and Sandra Tsing-Loh's inane life. God I'm so sick of Sandra Tsing-Loh. Who the hell is she fucking over there to get six pages devoted to her inane blather?

  • Warty||

    Anything that publishes Andrew Sullivan isn't worth reading.

  • ||

    Agree on Tsing-Loh, disagree on Sullivan. Tsing-Loh is the epitome of yuppie self absorption. She is tiresome and at this point I skip right over her articles. I respect Sullivan a great deal, however, mainly due to the fact that he is one of those too rare modern political writers who understands that it is not just ok but intellectually admirable to change positions on major issues. He was a huge supporter of the Iraq War and the Republican position on terrorism up until around 2005 or so, when he realized what a sham (and shame) the whole thing was. He is honest and a serious thinker. Not sure why all the hate here.

  • ||

    I actually like to read stuff by writers with whom I don't agree, IF they argue their points well. Those sorts of challenges to my mindset are how I learn and develop my view of the world.

    But The Atlantic is just political bullshit now. The 150th anniversary issue was a revealing tragedy. If you want to see how far that mag has fallen, pick up pretty much any issue from the 90s or before, parse through it, and then read the 150th Anniversary Issue and puke.

  • Meta4||

    "Not sure why all the hate here."

    He ate my bread.

    He pooped in my bread.

  • stuartl||

    ...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.

    Whenever something like this happen in Russia, the counter assumption (the act actually is to hurt the people it helps) turns up as a strong theory. I prefer the simpler theory, it helps the people it helps -- in this case Kadyrov. Is Russia really special and it is all really complicated, or are Russian conspiracy theorists as whacked out as truthers are here?

  • Warty||

    He is honest and a serious thinker.

    No and no.

  • Fascitis Necrotizante||

  • ||

    Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, surrounded by totalitarian assholery.

    I know it's presumptious to edit Winston Chuchill. Oh well, I still consider it an improvement.

  • ||

    God I'm so sick of Sandra Tsing-Loh. Who the hell is she fucking over there to get six pages devoted to her inane blather?

    I'm guessing, not Andrew Sullivan.

  • Winston||

    Is Russia really special and it is all really complicated,

    It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma . . . .

  • Winston||

    Way to damn slow today :-{

  • Rhywun||

    I like Sullivan if only because he isn't 100% predictable like the partisan hacks that make up the other 99 out of 100 writers.

  • stuartl||

    Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, surrounded by totalitarian assholery.

    Is it really? Or is it too much vodka, no free press, and totalitarian assholery? Thug government does what it wants and then they (or someone else with something to gain) spread "opposite" rumors. Poorly informed Russians and naive westerners fall for it.

    Simple seems more likely. I confess to being simple minded -- I believe Al Quaeda was responsible for 9-11 and Oswald was a schizoid who shot JFK.

  • KingShamus||

    Rhywun | August 3, 2009, 2:38pm | #
    I like Sullivan if only because he isn't 100% predictable like the partisan hacks that make up the other 99 out of 100 writers.

    ----------------

    Yeah, it's hella lame to have a consistent worldview. It's better to just follow the current and change accordingly.

    Or in the case of St. Andrew of the Sacred PowerGlutes, it's totally awesome to cynically change political positions to fit in better with the cool crowd.

  • hmm||

    Why is he wearing his ear protection like a retarded helmet wearing dipshit.

    In Soviet Russia ear muffs wear you!!

  • Luke Johnson||

    It's to keep the muffs from mussing up his hair.

  • John Sabotta||

    Isn't that a Stechkin, not a Makarov?

  • Mad Max||

    'Simple seems more likely. I confess to being simple minded -- I believe Al Quaeda was responsible for 9-11 and Oswald was a schizoid who shot JFK.'

    I bet you think the moon landing was genuine, too.

  • abercrombie milano||

    .in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it's literally a labyrinth, that's no joke

  • nike shox||

    is good

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