Seeking the truth in Nemtsov’s assassination

Vadim Prokhorov and Anastasia Sergeeva for New Eastern Europe

Portrait of Nemtsov

Photo Lena Osokina / Shutterstock.com

The official investigation into the death of Boris Nemtsov has concluded that it was an assassination, however all attempts are being made to bury any links to Ramzan Kadyrov and the Kremlin and only prosecute the assassins who carried out the crime. Yet, the evidence shows that justice should be found beyond the perpetrators. In this text, on behalf of the Nemtsov family, we present the facts known from the preliminary investigation in the hope that this material will help preserve the truth about Boris’ assassination.

By the end of 2014 the Russian society faced a serious economic downturn for the first time since the crisis of 2008. The Kremlin turned out to be unable to solve the issues, such as a drop in state revenue, the devaluation of the rouble and inflation. The challenges that had been outlined by leading Russian economists earlier in 2011-2012 became the new reality. Despite a massive propaganda campaign, reinforced with pseudo-patriotic actions against neighbouring countries, the Kremlin could not continue controlling the situation, even among the regional elite, without new repressions.

At the same time, Vladimir Putin and his inner circle faced a new threat: the so-called “non-systemic” opposition (opposition groups that are not controlled by the Kremlin). Despite the constant persecution of their leaders and activists, these groups continued to function and even began planning a large coalition campaign. Its agenda planned to show a positive alternative to the current form of social-economic development in Russia. They aimed to provide a glimpse of the future in Russia after Putin and wanted to reach a wider range of citizens than their previous messages, based on fundamental human rights and democracy promotion.

 

Pain and tragedy

In February 2015 the oppositional democratic movement was busily preparing the first large rally of its campaign. This process was accompanied by outside attempts to discredit the movement by creating internal doubts, conflicts and disagreement. Regardless, it moved forward and the new outlines of a future democratic coalition were taking shape. For the first time since 2012 activists and leaders set out the task of engaging new social groups. In order to solve this knotty issue, canvassing was conducted in crowded areas of Moscow and other cities. The final days before the rally were dynamic and active. Leaflets and posters for the March 1st event, called “Spring” (Весна), attracted people with their colours and ideas to wake up society after a long, wintery depression.

The evening of February 27th in Moscow was wet, warm and foggy. As night approached, Muscovites returned home from their offices and Friday parties. A tweet by opposition leader Ilya Yashin exploded on social media and immediately spread offline. It read “Nemtsov is shot. He’s dead.” These words represented all the pain and tragedy that was shared by thousands of people around the world. One year after the tragedy, this pain has not lessened, although Boris is still alive in the memory of those hundreds of thousands of people.

Despite his death, his role in Russia is still very meaningful. An unofficial monument has been sustained at the assassination site throughout the whole year; flowers, candles, portraits and photos, posters and personal letters have been brought and delivered to it from all manner of different places. Although the local authorities are trying to eliminate it, activists keep returning with new photos and flowers. They guard the memorial, day and night, to prevent its destruction by either the public authorities or hooligans. People who come to Moscow are bound by honour to visit and leave something for Boris.

Meanwhile the official investigation continues. The case files are growing and new verifications of the links between this crime and high-level Kremlin officials are emerging. In this situation, attempts by Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, to escape a serious conversation look like a confession to those who are well-informed about the crime and close to its investigation. Unfortunately, there are not many of them, either inside or outside of Russia.

Nevertheless, there is material evidence which is ready and it is important to share it with a larger audience. When it was being prepared, the investigative committee of the Russian Federation announced the end of its investigation, concluding that it was an assassination, and opened a new separate case to search for those who had ordered the assassination and those who had carried it out. The official announcement showed attempts to bury links to Kadyrov and the Kremlin and to only prosecute the assassins. The Nemtsov family’s lawyers will be able to read the case files and then they see if they are relevant. For now, we can only present what is known from the preliminary investigation. We hope this material will help preserve the truth about Boris’ assassination.

 

Putting the pieces together

The direct perpetrators of the murder were caught by the investigative committee a week after the tragedy. During the first part of March 2015 the preliminary picture of the crime and the preparations for it were reconstructed. Five suspects were detained in connection with the assassination, all of them from the Chechen republic. Their names were Zaur Dadaev, Anzor Gubashev, Shadid Gubashev, Tamerlan Eskerkhanov and Khamzat Bakhaev. A sixth suspect, Beslan Shavanov, blew himself up with a grenade according to the official version of events, but there is also a possibility that Special Forces officers were ordered to kill him.

Dadaev and Shavanov are officers in the “North” battalion. Officially, this is part of the internal army of the ministry of internal affairs but in reality, they are the private troops of Ramzan Kadyrov. The head of the battalion is Alibek Delimkhanov, the brother of Adam Delimkhanov, an MP who is essentially the second-in-command of Chechnya after Kadyrov. According to the official investigation, Zaur Dadaev was the direct perpetrator of the assassination, the person who fired six shots into the back of Boris Nemtsov, with five of them reaching their target. Another suspect, Tamerlan Eskerkhanov, was a policeman in the Shelkovsk regional department of interior affairs in the Chechen republic. The head of this department is Vakha Geremeev, a cousin of Adam Delimkhanov, the MP, and a brother of Sulejman Geremeev, a senator. Sulejman Geremeev is a person of interest in several other criminal cases, including the assassination of one of the Yamadaev brothers.

From the very beginning, the official investigation into Boris Nemstov’s assassination has held the view that Ruslan Geremeev, another cousin of Adam Delimkhanov and a nephew of Sulejman Geremeev, was also part of the group of assassins. His whereabouts are currently unknown. According to the official investigation, the organisers and perpetrators of the assassination are still unidentified. On October 31st 2015 charges were brought against Ruslan Mukhudinov in absentia, who, according to the official investigation, was one of the organisers of the crime. His whereabouts are also unknown. Insiders believe that Mukhudinov was the driver and assistant to Ruslan Geremeev, who they argue could not have acted alone in this case. Apparently, he had also taken part in the preparations, but had no personal motive to eliminate Nemtsov; he was just carrying out orders.

Taking all of this into consideration, it was quite absurd to think that Zaur Dadaev suddenly decided to kill Nemtsov as revenge for his “active support of the Charlie Hebdo campaign”, an issue on which Nemtsov did not actively comment. Nevertheless, this was the initial explanation for the motives underpinning the assassination announced by the authorities. Moreover, this version was used by the official investigation until it became clear that it was untenable. It was later revealed that the initial preparations for the murder took place in September 2014. It was also embarrassing for the officers of the investigative committee, as well as for the official speaker of the committee, Vladimir Markin, who had said that Mukhudinov was an organiser and perpetrator of the assassination.

 

Clan system

Why did the investigation, which was so effective at the beginning, suddenly stop and begin to look like a farce? The answer lies on the surface. The Chechen Republic is a clan based society and every person has strong ties within their clan. Based on clan tradition, by skilfully dividing, suppressing and playing them off against each other, Ramzan Kadyrov has created a system that can now reveal the path to the actual interested parties in Nemtsov’s assassination. The investigation has now been blocked so as to avoid any possible leaks emerging from intermediaries in Kadyrov’s clan.

As mentioned above, all the participants in the assassination are closely connected to Kadyrov’s closest partners and friends, Adam Delimkhanov and Sulejman Geremeev. Chechnya’s clan system is organised in such a way that no clan members can act without the permission of the clan authority. In other words, Ruslan Mukhudinov and Ruslan Geremeev would not have been able to organise the crime without a direct order from, as well as close consultation with, Alibek, Delimkhanov or Geremeev. Moreover, they belong to the close circle of Ramzan Kadyrov and are under the full control of the “master” of the Chechen Republic.

Therefore, it is becoming clear that the assassination could not have been prepared without a direct order from and coordination with the leader of Chechnya and his inner circle. This is further evidenced by what happened after investigators attempted to interrogate Ruslan Geremeev, who was openly “covered” and supported by the head of the Chechen republic with both words of approbation and by his personal guard, when they refused to let investigators into the village where Geremeev was hiding. It is obvious that together with the arrest of Geremeev, the investigators should interrogate Ramzan Kadyrov and those closest to him, namely Alibek and Adam Delimkhanovs and Sulejman Geremeev.

On April 22nd 2015 the lawyers representing Zhanna Nemtsova, Boris Nemtsov’s daughter, requested the interrogation of several people, including Ramzan Kadyrov. However, the investigative committee refused, stating that the “investigation is substantive in its actions and there are no grounds for an interrogation of Kadyrov and his inner circle”. The court approved the decision of the investigative committee and also supported Kadyrov. The decision of the court demonstrates an unwillingness on the part of the Kremlin to guide the investigation in the direction of Kadyrov. By contrast, the head of the Yaroslavl region was immediately questioned in connection with the assassination (Nemtsov was an elected official in the Yaroslavl Regional Duma).

 

Presentation of facts

When speculating about whether the decision to assassinate Boris was made in Grozny or Moscow, let us return to the beginning. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the social and political situation in Russia could become “unstable” and “unreliable” at the start of a parliamentary campaign. For many people in government, the only “right” reaction to this challenge was to strengthen their repressive mechanisms and engage in a show of force, both inside and outside the country.

One of the shadowy figures involved in these policies is Victor Zolotov, a former head of Putin’s security service and the current first deputy chief of the ministry of internal affairs and commander in chief of the interior army (special troops designated to maintain order inside the country). In the 1990s Zolotov maintained close links with both Putin in the St Petersburg administration and Roman Tsepov, a member of the criminal community in St Petersburg. Since then he has taken part in “solving issues”, first at the local level and then later, at the federal one. His close links to Putin were discussed in the media in 2014, following his appointment. Since then, rumours about his successive promotion to a ministerial position have been floated, with emphasis placed on the possible mass repressions that could follow.

We try to avoid rumours and deal solely with facts:

  1. Victor Zolotov is closely connected with Ramzan Kadyrov. He is also the direct boss of some of the suspects in the assassination case, namely those who are from the “North” battalion, a division of the internal forces of the Russian Federation. Zolotov provides patronage for Kadyrov to Putin and often plays the role of intermediary between the heads of Russia and Chechnya.
  2. Zolotov’s previous position as head of the presidential security service meant that not only was he close to President Putin, but he also had access to all the information about monitoring systems around the Kremlin and had the opportunity to coordinate the processes with the security service, including preparations for the assassination.
  3. When the investigative committee conducted an official operation on the territory of the Chechen Republic with the aim of searching for Ruslan Geremeev and Ruslan Mukhudinov (officers of the “North” battalion), Viktor Zolotov suddenly organised an unscheduled inspection of this battalion’s troops. The inspection was announced by Kadyrov on one of his social networking accounts. His post suggested that there were also some additional closed-door consultations that took place in order to protect the “North” battalion from representatives of the investigative committee.
  4. Between 2000 and 2013 Victor Zolotov was head of presidential security, as well as being the deputy chief of the federal protective services (ФСО), and therefore had access to information about the entire monitoring system (including video monitoring and the disposition of officers and soldiers) around the Kremlin, including the location of Nemtsov’s assassination.

All the facts described above were cited in Zhanna Nemtsova’s appeal about the necessity to interrogate Victor Zolotov in connection with the assassination. Despite this, the appeal was rejected on the same grounds as the previous one.

 

Alternative motives

Another potential motive for the assassination was to scare the elite and opposition at the onset of an economic crisis, as well as to increase “the stakes in the game” and demonstrate “the force of the people’s hate”. On the same day as Nemtsov’s assassination, several regional opposition leaders who took part in the preparations for the upcoming rally were attacked and beaten. This could be the realisation of a campaign to scare and intimidate anyone interested in political change, conducted by the “true defenders of the state”, i.e. groups of hitmen with unlimited power and opportunities.

Another version of the story suggests that the killing may have been revenge for some harsh comments made by Nemtsov about Vladimir Putin in the spring of 2014 to Ukrainian journalists. When looking at how the crime was prepared, with evidence from the official investigation, specific features of the lifestyle and worldview of the people who likely took part in the decision-making process for the assassination support this version. If you believe that Putin and his associates deal with “threats” in the same way a prison gang might, this version of events fits perfectly. The criminal leader will punish any person who has insulted him publicly, or else risk losing his authority and being deposed.

It is also important not to forget that often the most hellish acts have financial motives. The Kremlin’s current financial interests dictate that it keeps the country under absolute control by dividing the opposition and sowing conflict and disagreement among them. From this point of view, Boris Nemtsov was not just an opposition leader, but also a friend, partner and authority for many of the numerous political and civic groups that constitute the opposition. He had no difficulty communicating with political and civic actors with different approaches and ideologies to his own. He worked closely with human right defenders, NGO leaders, experts and journalists. He could find compromise, persuade, reconcile and negotiate with all kinds of people. Bearing this in mind, the perpetrators may have believed that assassinating him would spoil communication inside the democratic opposition movement and halt the coalition building processes.

An additional aggravating circumstance to consider is the long-term hostile pressure that Boris Nemtsov felt from Kadyrov, pro-Kremlin journalists and even Vladimir Putin. The atmosphere of hate and intolerance towards political opponents, particularly opposition leaders and human rights defenders, has increased the possibility and acceptability of violence and terror as a method of political struggle.

 

The prevention of further degradation

Without the help of the international community, it is going to be difficult to discover who really killed Boris Nemtsov and why. Just like in other political assassinations in Russia, those who are closely connected to representatives of the so-called “political elite” in modern Russia will remain untouchable, as the investigation materials concerning them will stay sealed and be placed on a shelf in the investigative committee’s offices. As was the case with other political assassinations in Russia, after the initial wave of attention and scrutiny, public interest dies down. As a result, there is a greater risk of the case being closed without finding the real perpetrators, of changes being made to the investigative team, or of important documents mysteriously going missing.

We would like to discover and bring to light as many facts about this case as possible, in addition to maintaining public interest in it. Moreover, we also want to highlight the multitude of similar political assassinations that have taken place over the last ten years, including those of Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova, since they both have a strong connection with the Chechen Republic and Ramzan Kadyrov personally.

The fact a country which is a leading UN member, a member of the Council of Europe and the OSCE and which is so deeply incorporated into the international legal system, could fall so far from grace and all but sanctify the assassination of political opponents, something which is seemingly becoming increasingly normal, saddens us very deeply. However, we still believe that the international legal system has been formed specifically to deal with such cases and that it could help prevent our state’s further degradation.

During the preparation of this article, Zhanna Nemtsova, together with Nemtsov’s lawyers and closest colleagues, attended a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and presented the situation regarding the investigation into her father’s assassination. The group of PACE delegates appealed for the appointment of a special rapporteur on the investigation.

We are hopeful that this special report will help preserve the facts and deliver them to the international community. However, we also believe that this is not the only mechanism that can be used to bring justice for Nemtsov. We would like to use this article to call on experts and policy-makers for their ideas on how we could force the Russian judicial and political system to continue its investigation and oblige them to present the verified and honest results to the international community. We also believe that the modern world must find better investigatory mechanisms for such cases, especially at the international level, as they are closely connected with fundamental human rights and international security.

Vadim Prokhorov is the lawyer representing the family of Boris Nemtsov.

Anastasia Sergeeva is a board member of the association “For a Free Russia”. She emigrated from Russia after 2012 due to the political situation. She previously worked as a political consultant and an activist of the Republican Party of Russia.

This text originally appeared in the print edition of New Eastern Europe – Issue 2/2016: Eve of Uncertainty.