A well-known Russian expert on the North Caucasus, Konstantin Kazenin, has warned that the paramilitary groups of North Caucasus leaders may end up destabilizing the Russian Federation. According to Kazenin, several leaders from the North Caucasus have created essentially private armies, which defend their patrons and improve their bargaining positions in local disputes. But he points out that these groups may be used for hire, as in the case of the recent assassination in Moscow of leading Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov (RBC, March 17).
Indeed, after repeated contradictory leaks, the investigators of Nemtsov’s murder have apparently concluded that it was a contract killing. The official version is apparently that the suspects, ethnic Chechens and members of the armed groups under the control of Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruler of Chechnya, received the equivalent of about $80,000 from an unknown person or persons to kill Nemtsov. One of the primary suspects, Zaur Dadaev, reportedly told the investigators that he was prepared to carry out the attack on Nemtsov because of the latter’s disparaging comments about Islam following the attack on Charlie Hebdo in France in 2014. However, Dadaev said his accomplices were prepared to do it only for the money (Rosbalt, March 19).
According to independent observers, the investigators have been trying to navigate between various powerful Kremlin interest groups in order to carry out their duties and not to offend anyone too powerful. This resulted in the emergence of numerous contradictory claims about Nemtsov’s murder, which put the blame either on the Russian security services, the Ukrainian security services, Ramzan Kadyrov, pro-Ukraine Chechens, Western security services and others. The investigators are reportedly seeking Ruslan Geremeyev, who they say was an intermediary figure in plotting the assassination of the Russian politician. Geremeyev is a cousin of Adam Delimkhanov, the Russian State Duma deputy from Chechnya who is Kadyrov’s cousin and a close associate of the Chechen leader. Geremeyev is reportedly in Chechnya under the protection of Chechen forces and is likely out of reach of the Russian investigators (Novaya Gazeta, March 16). Delimkhanov has been implicated in the murders of the opponents of Kadyrov, including Sulim Yamadayev, who was killed in Dubai in 2009 (Newsru.com, April 7, 2009).
Moscow would probably prefer to scapegoat relatively low ranking Chechens in Nemtsov’s killing, but Kadyrov has thus far appeared adamant about protecting his men (Instagram, March 8). The bigger question, however, remains unsolved—who ordered Boris Nemtsov’s assassination? Neither Geremeyev nor Delimkhanov could have killed Nemtsov without orders from someone above them in the hierarchy. Even Kadyrov’s motives for killing Nemtsov are less than clear. Kadyrov’s only boss appears to be Vladimir Putin himself. Unless Kadyrov knew or thought that Putin had approved of Nemtsov’s assassination, Chechnya’s ruler would not have organized the attack. Responding to a question about Nemtsov’s murder, Putin said that he “hoped” the killers of Nemtsov would be found. “At least, I think the investigators are on the right track and will act persistently,” Putin said. It is unclear what this bit of Putin-speak actually means, since he has been changing his opinion quite often lately. The Russian news agency RBC cited polling by the independent Levada Center, which found only 33 percent of Russians believed the organizers of Nemtsov’s killing would be located, while 44 percent said they would not be found (RBC, March 19).
In Kazenin’s opinion, unlike ethnic-Russian mafias, the North Caucasus criminals made the Russian authorities in Moscow believe that they represented not only their own gang members, but also their entire ethnic groups. Given the current economic crisis, Kazenin argues, these paramilitary groups may start offering their services in other parts of Russia. To prevent this, Kazenin says it necessary to start developing institutions in the North Caucasus. People in the region are increasingly demanding free elections, transparent rules for businesses, land ownership and other economic and political activities. The analyst recognizes that it is essentially unrealistic to expect that the government will listen to his recommendations. But he warns that the price for ignoring local demands in the North Caucasus will be high (RBC, March 17).
Kazenin appeals to the federal authorities and blames the regional actors for their backwardness and criminality. The problem with this view, of course, is that there is no non-corrupt and just government in Moscow to come and install law and order in the North Caucasus. Kazenin conveniently forgets that Moscow installed Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya and supports corrupt officials in other republics of the North Caucasus. Moscow abolished or constrained electoral mechanisms in the region. Moscow’s pseudo-feudal bureaucratic ideal order in the North Caucasus appears to be crumbling under the pressure of economic crisis, and Russian experts are searching for a new mechanism to control the region. The Russian government’s hold on the North Caucasus is likely to experience serious challenges as the model of quasi-colonial governance in the area hits economic and political hurdles resulting from Moscow’s increasingly empty state coffers.