Yesterday a prominent opposition politician in Russia, Ilya Yashin, friend and colleague of slain Boris Nemtsov, published an open letter on his facebook page to the strongman leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov seeking answers to his friend’s murder. Kadyrov is widely suspected as connected to Nemtsov’s assassination. At the very minimum, Nemtsov’s allies believe Kadyrov has information about the crime and/or the alleged perpetrators, some of whom hail from Chechnya.
Boris Nemtsov, former Deputy Prime Minister and prominent Russian opposition leader, was gunned down on the Moskvoretsky Bridge as he strolled home on the night of February 27, 2015. The Moskvoretsky Bridge, dubbed by some the Nemtsov Bridge, is a stone’s throw from Red Square and Russia’s seat of power in the Kremlin. Photos from the scene that winter night were so jarringly picturesque, they could almost have been mistaken for postcards. And the message seemed perfectly clear as well.
Nemtsov was killed on the eve of a mass rally “Spring March” he had been organizing to unite Russia’s opposition against Putin’s war in Ukraine and the resulting crisis in Russia. He not only saw the war as morally wrong. He also connected Putin’s misadventures in Ukraine to the deepening domestic economic downturn as well as Russia’s worrisome plunge into isolation globally.
Since the Kremlin controls popular TV media, which is steadfastly focused on presenting pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin propaganda denying Russia was even waging a war on its neighbor, Russia’s liberal democratic opposition has had little option but to do grassroots work to organize and inform Russians about what their government is up to, and ultimately, to hold them accountable through the democratic process of elections.
Nemtsov’s death dealt a severe blow to Russia’s liberals to be sure. The brazen assassination also highlighted what many had already suspected about the state of the nation’s political discourse: namely, that opposition will be silenced one way or another. Protesters will be sent to prison, opponents won’t be approved for election ballots, leaders will be vilified on mass media as traitorous “fifth column” enemies of the state, and some will even be killed in the streets. Nemtsov’s murder was a turning point that confirmed Russia in 2015 had regressed back to a lawless, propaganda-filled repressive and gangster-like society, where anyone could be the next victim.
Of course the Kremlin denied any connection to Nemtsov’s murder, and even repeated what has now become a morbid cliché used when other prominent voices were murdered, that Boris Nemtsov was an insignificant figure, not worth killing. Adding insult to injury, officials have consistently refused to allow official commemorations, and the makeshift public memorial at the “Nemtsov Bridge,” comprised of roses, poems and candles has been repeatedly vandalized.
Not surprisingly, there’s been little progress to date in Nemtsov’s murder investigation in Russia. A few men from Chechnya were detained and charged on the theory few take seriously, that, as Muslims, they killed Nemtsov as revenge for supporting the free speech rights of French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, whose depictions of the Prophet Muhammad made them the target of terrorists weeks earlier. The man suspected as the ring-leader of Nemtsov’s murder has since disappeared and may well be protected in Chechnya.
There have been public calls to bring the Chechen leader Kadyrov in for questioning, which have gone nowhere. He is widely seen as a loose cannon. There’s been speculation that some within Russia’s security establishment fear his growing power and brazenness. Some have even said that there’s an internal battle between the security establishment and Kadyrov. Given that Kadyrov received a state honor from Putin personally shortly after Nemtsov’s assassination, whatever the rumors, Putin seems to have his back.
Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear nothing happens in Chechnya without Kadyrov’s knowledge or approval. This is where Ilya Yashin comes in, voicing directly in a still open public forum what many Russians have no voice to say. Below is his bold and courageous letter to the leader of Chechnya, translated into English.
OPEN LETTER TO KADYROV
My name is Ilya Yashin. I am a close friend and colleague of Boris Nemtsov who was killed in February.
I am thoroughly familiar with the circumstances of this crime, and I believe that the traces of the violence suffered upon my friend lead straight to the official government in Grozny [capital of Chechnya]. Moreover, I am convinced that the political regime that you have created in the Chechen Republic not only threatens critics of the current government, but it is also a threat to the national security of Russia.
I have been devoting my time of late to preparing an expert report that will explain this problem. However, I want the final version to be objective.
In October, you invited Zhanna Nemtsova [Nemtsov’s daughter] to “tea,” after she demanded you be called in for questioning in the murder of her father. I propose we meet openly and publicly. I am prepared to come to Grozny. No tea or other sentimentalities necessary. I have a number of questions that you definitely won’t like. But I want to ask them and look you straight in the eye as I do. Let’s talk, man to man.
You are portrayed in the media as a man unafraid of open direct dialogue and who doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable questions. Hopefully, you will confirm this reputation is accurate.
I await your reply.
As of this writing, Yashin’s letter has close to 6000 likes and over 1000 shares. I’ll keep you posted on what happens next.