He should have delivered more damning truths and told the Kremlin what no one in the West has yet said in clear and certain terms: The murders have to stop.
This isn’t just about the shocking death of Natalya Estemirova, a 50-year-old human-rights campaigner whose body was dumped by the side of a road on July 15. She had been shot several times — at least once in the head, which is the signature for the killers who have been methodically eliminating critics or rivals of the Stalinist regime now in place in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya.
More chilling yet was the silence that fell after Estemirova was forced into a small white car at 8:30 a.m. on a Grozny street. Witnesses heard her scream out that she was being kidnapped, but no one would give details, the license plate numbers, or any descriptions of the driver.
That speaks volumes. Terror breeds fear, which produces the silence that Estemirova dealt with daily, as she tried to help victims of kidnappings, house burnings, extortion, torture, extrajudicial executions and other crimes.
Her success in getting people to talk is why she was killed: Even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said as much, to the surprise of many. “She was doing a very useful job,” he said. ‘She spoke the truth.”
The Mafia in Sicily thrives on omerta; Russia, on a state level, is tolerating something similar in Chechnya. There is no reason Western leaders should stay quiet about the reign of terror gripping the region, with the Kremlin’s implicit blessing.
That’s the real issue. Most human-rights observers lay the blame for this wave of violence on Ramzan Kadyrov, 32, the president of Chechnya, whose control over the republic and its wealth are unchallenged. Whether he is the mastermind — he denies any responsibility — the fact is that criminals, including those in uniform, act with impunity in his republic.
The key to young Kadyrov’s unstoppable power is Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who ceded control of the republic first to his father, and then to him, in return for their help in quashing Chechnya’s separatist rebellion. According to a joke that makes the rounds in the Caucasus republic, if Putin were to wake up 15 minutes later than usual one day, Kadyrov’s corpse would already be going cold.
The paradox is that Putin has succeeded in creating exactly what his predecessor Boris Yeltsin first went to war in Chechnya in 1994 to prevent: a lawless quasi-autonomous region run by a gangland-style warlord who rules through a manipulation of clan rivalries, vendettas and elements of Islamic Sharia law.
Estemirova wasn’t the first human-rights campaigner killed because of their work in Chechnya. In January, a human-rights lawyer and a young journalist, who both worked on Chechen cases, were gunned down on a Moscow street. And then there was Anna Politkovskaya, a world-renowned journalist who had also investigated abuses in Chechnya, killed in October 2006 by a bullet to her face, as she was bringing home groceries.
These murders produced an international outcry, but little more. So far, justice hasn’t caught up with the killers, or at least those who ordered the hits.
Crack in Omerta
Western governments shouldn’t let the Kremlin off the hook. They should shame Russia into stopping the murders and jailing the killers. Medvedev’s outraged comments — rare for a Kremlin leader — may prove to be the crack in the omerta in the Putin- Kadyrov regime. He should be held to his promise of an uncompromising investigation into Estemirova’s death.
In the past, the West has chosen to mute its criticism of Russia’s Chechen wars. In 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. accepted Russia’s help in Afghanistan, in return for overlooking brutal tactics in what Moscow described as its own war on terror in Chechnya.
There are no excuses this time. Estemirova, like Politkovskaya, was a threat only to those who killed her. Telling the truth should never be that dangerous.
By Celestine Bohlen
Bloomberg News, 4 August 2009
* Omertà is a popular attitude and code of honor, common in areas of southern Italy, such as Sicily, Calabria, and Campania, where criminal organizations like the Mafia, ‘Ndrangheta, and Camorra are strong. A common definition is the “code of silence”.