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  • Boris Nemtsov and the Chechen-Russian conflict
  • Miguel Vázquez Liñán (bio)

After the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, Ramzan Kadyrov was quick to offer the media his version of the facts – a rather unimaginative rendering based on some of the common beliefs churned out by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Generally speaking, what Kadyrov was saying was that the crime could have been committed by the American and Ukrainian secret services, with the help of Chechen terrorists. With a confidence born of impunity, he did not provide a jot of evidence to support his accusation.

Following a pattern that has characterized other cases, such as the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, it was not long before the Russian police, with the habitual cooperation of the state-run TV channels, exhibited several Chechens who were presumably the perpetrators of the crime. It should be remembered that these same TV channels have over recent years disseminated “information” inviting viewers to regard Nemtsov and other members of the opposition as fifth columnists in the pay of the West and, “therefore,” as traitors to their country. This is the image – hegemonic in present-day Russia – that Kadyrov tacitly conjured up in his statements. The Chechen leader immediately put the assassination into context: this [End Page 39] is what happens to those who work for the West; when they are no longer useful alive, their Western friends are capable of anything, even of making them disappear and using foul play to destabilize Russia.

As in the case of Politkovskaya, the murder suspects are from the North Caucasus, specifically Chechnya. It is a sad fact that, in such a broken society as contemporary Russia, it is simple to find someone willing to pull the trigger, and complicated to conclude criminal investigations affecting the murder of journalists, human rights advocates or politicians blowing the whistle on the corruption of the country’s elite.

Nemtsov was one of them. His verbal clashes with Kadyrov, which in present-day Russia constitute an act of political courage, were conspicuous. At the beginning of the second Chechen campaign, which would turn out to be crucial to Vladimir Putin’s success in the upcoming presidential elections, Nemtsov was among those who, against the grain and in a context in which ethnic hatred and the association of Chechens with terrorists was the norm, endorsed a different policy, now forgotten, whose aim was to avoid a war that seemed then like the only solution.

In fact, history frequently suffers from memory failure as regards unsuccessful initiatives, namely, those that are short-lived or regarded as having had little impact on future events. But at that time, at the onset of the Second Chechen War, to denounce, as Nemtsov did, the excesses of the Russian army and the situation of the Chechen refugees, in addition to calling for negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov, then president of Chechnya, was tantamount to defending an about-face in the official line of the Kremlin as regards the conflict.

Not all the proposals presented by Nemtsov, a member of the State Duma at the time, addressing Chechnya were sound, although among his good judgements was to have known how to distinguish between the stance of Shamil Basaev, organizer of terrorist attacks such as the seizure of Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre in 2002, and the Beslan school massacre in 2003, and that of Maskhadov, who strongly condemned both atrocities. Nemtsov was fully aware that the support of the so-called “moderate” Chechens (led by Maskhadov) in favor of a compromise could have isolated the followers of Basaev and thus facilitated a negotiated solution to the conflict. In fact, in the year 2000 Nemtsov personally conducted a series of talks with Chechen MPs (elected in 1997), which were not without significant symbolic value at a time when any contact with the Chechen authorities was interpreted by the Kremlin, and the media companies under its control, as an act of treason. In the same year, the Russian government had started to implement its policy geared to “Chechenizing” the conflict, choosing Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of the current Chechen president, to oversee the process in situ.

Since then, and until his assassination in February...