A prominent Kremlin critic and Russian opposition figure who has been in a coma since last week has been diagnosed with “acute poisoning by an undefined substance”, his wife has said.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, 35, who works for Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation, had been in Russia to screen a documentary film about his friend Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader and former deputy prime minister who was gunned down near the Kremlin in 2015.
A high-profile alliance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leader of the Chechnya region of Russia is starting to fray. And outspoken Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was mysteriously gunned down in front of the Kremlin last month, reportedly knew all about it.
Critics of Putin say that over the past decade the Russian president has empowered 38-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, “to effectively create the Islamic republic that Chechen separatists had dreamed of — albeit one entirely reliant on Moscow for financial support,” The New York Times reported this week.
The Times notes that Putin has allowed Kadyrov to rule the region for eight years while “seemingly turning a blind eye to assassinations, torture and other human rights abuses.” And critics, including Nemtsov, were warning about what happens if the warlord turned strongman’s ambitions for power spin out of Putin’s control.
“I cannot understand what Putin expects when arming 20,000 Kadyrovtsy gathered today in the stadium in Grozny,” Nemtsov wrote in Facebook post in December. “What will happen next? The country is entering a crisis. There is not enough money for anything, including the support of regions.
“And the unspoken contract between Putin and Kadyrov — money in exchange for loyalty — ends. And where will 20,000 Kadyrovtsy go? What will they demand? How will they behave? When will they come to Moscow?”
It seems Nemtsov was on to something.
People initially suspected Kremlin involvement in Nemtsov’s murder, but now five Chechens have been arrested in connection with the killing, and fingers are starting to point at Kadyrov as the possible architect of the hit.
One of the suspects arrested is a former deputy commander from one of Kadyrov’s security battalions, which operate independently of federal authorities. Kadyrov praised the deputy as a “real Russian patriot” after he was arrested and implied that he wasn’t guilty of taking a hit out on Nemtsov.
Moreover, four people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg that Putin was furious when he learned about what had happened.
Putin is “dealing with a significant internal challenge: It’s extremely unlikely he ordered Nemtsov’s killing, but it was clearly an inside job,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, told Business Insider earlier this month. “Dealing with that is surely his top priority.”
Radio Free Europe noted that on March 16 — the day Putin reappeared from a mysterious 10-day absence from public view — a law enforcement official told Interfax that Nemtsov’s murder had been reclassified from a “contract killing” to a “hate crime.”
That designation all but squashes the investigation into who ordered the hit on Nemtsov. So while it’s possible that the Kremlin’s investigation might have ended up implicating Kadyrov in the murder, now it seems that possibility has been taken off the table.
In any case, Nemtsov supporters are now saying the investigation has “exposed a dangerous rift between the chiefs of the security services in Moscow and the brash Chechen leader,” The Times says.
‘The FSB hate Ramzan’
“The F.S.B. [the post-Soviet successor to the KGB] hate Ramzan because they are unable to control him,” Alexey Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Times. “He does whatever he wants, including in Moscow. Nobody can arrest members of his team if there is no agreement with Putin.”
Some experts think that Nemtsov’s murder fits this context.
“Putin had to make a choice. Either feed Kadyrov to the FSB-men, or give up the FSB to Kadyrov,” political analyst Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook. “It’s a difficult and unpleasant choice … And he chose the one and only thing he could choose: Kadyrov.”
An unnamed source close to the Kremlin told Bloomberg of another theory about Nemtsov’s murder: that rogue FSB agents killed Nemtsov in the hopes of implicating Kadyrov, whose increasingly audacious actions have become a pain for officials in Moscow.
“Putin has become a hostage to his own policy of radicalizing supporters so they can spring to action whenever he needs them,” Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Bloomberg. “His authoritarianism is sliding into decentralized terror. His backers think he’s much more radical than he really is and are acting without clear orders.”
By giving Kadyrov the power to kill extremists in Chechnya in order to stabilize the region — as well as cover to assassinate perceived critics in the capital — Putin may have inadvertently created a monster that the Kremlin can’t contain.
Nemtsov’s supporters say Russian propaganda implicity encourages violence against Putin critics, according to Bloomberg. The Kremlin reportedly approved a rally in Moscow during which tens of thousands of people demanded that Putin’s critics be “purged.”
What happens next?
It’s unclear whether there will be ramifications for whoever ordered the hit on Nemtsov. Or how the murder is rattling the Kremlin.
While Putin was absent from public view, Kadyrov reaffirmed his undying loyalty to the leader in an Instagram post, writing: “I will always be his faithful companion, regardless of whether he is president or not. To give one’s life for such a person is an easy task.”
Radio Free Europe points out that this could have been a veiled threat: “I am loyal, Kadyrov seemed to be saying. But others may not be. And taking me down carries risks.”
In a rare newspaper interview ahead of his state visit to Italy, Vladimir Putin has claimed he never makes mistakes because God “built his life so he’d have nothing to regret”.
The Russian president was due to meet Italy’s Matteo Renzi at the Expo 2015 world fair in Milan on Wednesday, where he is expected to discuss the prospect of easing economic sanctions imposed by the West over the Ukraine crisis.
Renzi was among the G7 leaders who pledged at the group’s Bavaria summit to step up restrictions on Russian trade if violence in the contested Donbass region continues.
Father says Kara-Murza diagnosed with kidney failure after being admitted to hospital in Moscow on Tuesday evening. A Russian opposition activist has been taken to hospital in Moscow after a sudden illness.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, who works for the Open Russia movement founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch and Putin critic who now lives in Zurich, was admitted after a sharp drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness.
Doctors initially thought he could have been poisoned, Vadim Prokhorov, a lawyer for the RPR Parnas opposition party, told the newspaper Kommersant. Kara-Murza is a member of the political council of the party, which had been led by Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov until his death in February.
“The deputy head doctor of the hospital came out and told us that everything was fine with his heart, his lungs, his stomach, etc. It all had to do with his kidneys,” he said. “It could have been spoiled yogurt or something else.”
Although Kara-Murza’s father ruled out deliberate poisoning, colleagues had expressed doubts about the sudden illness, which comes after the killing of Nemtsov and reported pressure on opposition activists.
Open Russia project coordinator Maria Baronova told the Guardian his illness was suspicious and said “various activities surrounding public people from Open Russia look strange”, but declined to elaborate.
Opposition journalist Alexander Ryklin wrote on Facebook on Wednesday that he had just spoken with Kara-Murza and that the doctors “suspect poisoning”.
Kara-Murza’s father previously told Kommersant that his son’s condition could be explained by an allergy or a high-stress lifestyle “with irregular meals, little sleep”.
Kara-Murza had been at the offices of the Russian Legal Information Agency, a state-owned legal news agency, on Tuesday when he fell ill and was taken away by ambulance, his father said.
Anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who was given two suspended sentences on what many see as politically motivated charges, said on Twitter that he had seen Kara-Murza a few days ago, adding:
“He didn’t complain about his health and was entirely energetic [like usual].”
Russian police raided the Open Russia offices in April. According to a copy of their search warrant later, police suspected the organisation of printing leaflets to be handed out at a planned opposition rally that called for “extremist activities”.
Two days ago there was a screening in Moscow of a 26-minute film Open Russia film, entitled Family. It alleges that Chechnya’s president Ramzan Kadyrov is guilty of widespread human rights abuses, presides over a personal army of 80,000 fighters and skims off money from the federal budget.
At the time of his death, Nemtsov was planning a dossier exposing Vladimir Putin’s secret war in the east of Ukraine. The 65-page report entitled Putin and the War was completed by Nemtsov’s friends.
It alleges that Russian troops have taken part in the conflict – with at least 220 killed – and that Russia has covertly supplied the rebels with military hardware, intelligence and training. Putin denies Russian forces have been involved in the war.
Kara-Murza lives in Moscow and New York, where his three children are based. His previous projects have included a documentary likening Russia’s opposition to Putin with Soviet dissidents who protested in the 1960s.
Kara-Murza took Vladimir Bukovsky, a prominent enemy of the KGB who spent 12 years in Soviet labour camps and psychiatric facilities, to New York last year.
Men with guns are everywhere in Grozny. They stand on street corners, hang out in hotel lobbies and swagger through shopping malls, Uzis hanging from the waist.
They are Kadyrovtsy, the fighters who became policemen after Ramzan Kadyrov, their militia leader, became head of the Chechen Republic under a deal with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
The Kadyrovtsys’ distinctive tight black uniform with a Chechen flag patch on the right arm and a Russian one on the left reflect how many Russians regard today’s Chechnya: a rival power base to parts of the Russian security state.
Tensions between Moscow and Grozny came to the fore after the murder in February of Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician, for which three former Chechen security officials were arrested.
This week, after security forces from the neighbouring Stavropol region shot dead a Chechen man in Grozny, Mr Kadyrov felt compelled to remind Moscow who was boss in Chechnya.
Mr Kadyrov instructed his security officials: “If someone appears on our territory without your knowledge — no matter if a Muscovite or someone from Stavropol — I order you to shoot to kill.”
The Chechen government insists the Stavropol officials had come as paid assassins and lacked documents for a legal operation. But Mr Kadyrov’s aggressive response raises a bigger political question: his regime may have stabilised war-torn Chechnya, but could it now weaken the Russian state as a whole?
“Kadyrov has tried to build a state within the state for a long time,” says Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a Caucasus expert at International Crisis Group. “He only listens to Putin, and nobody else.”
While other republics in the North Caucasus exchange intelligence on the Islamist insurgency with which the restive region struggles, the Chechen arm of Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, refuses to do so.
“It shares what it feels like sharing with Moscow, and lets the centre decide what it sends back down south,” says Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services at New York University and author of a book on the Chechen wars.
Chechnya’s warlord rulers have clashed over their claim to special status with other parts of the security apparatus before. So far, they have had their way.
In 2013, Mr Putin replaced his top investigator in Chechnya after only seven months on the job following a run-in with Chechen officials.
Sergei Bobrov, a highly decorated general at the Federal Investigative Committee, had pressed on with an investigation into the murder of three women in the Chechen village of Geldagan even after his staff received threatening phone calls telling them to stop.
Two people from Geldagan said their village belonged to the area of influence of Magomed Daudov, a former fighter under Mr Kadyrov’s father and now the republic’s prime minister. “No investigator can build a case without asking him what to do,” said one of the two.
The same year Mr Bobrov was forced out, the Federal Investigative Committee released several Chechen men with links to Mr Kadyrov whom the FSB had detained on charges of extorting, kidnapping and torturing other Chechens in Moscow.
In Chechnya, some believe that Mr Kadyrov ordered Mr Nemtsov’s murder just steps from the Kremlin walls because he thought this would be a service to his political overlord.
“That man is getting really worried what will happen to him if Putin is no longer there,” said a government critic in Grozny who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “With the criticism from the west, the economic crisis and rumours about disagreements in Putin’s circle, he realised that Putin will not be there for ever. Once Putin is gone, he loses everything.”
Others see the Nemtsov murder as a result of infighting. In Grozny, speculation is rife whether Mr Daudov or Adam Delimkhanov, a Duma member and brother of the commander of interior ministry troops in Chechnya, have ambitions to replace Mr Kadyrov.
True or not, these theories point to the precarious nature and the built-in risks of Mr Putin’s solution for Chechnya. But the Russian president does not appear to share such concerns.
He considers Chechnya a model that can be applied elsewhere. Last November, he suggested to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, that Ukraine pacify its eastern Donbass region by buying it off with money and autonomy as he had done in Chechnya.
That is more than an abstract idea. Moscow is bringing other parts of the North Caucasus in line with some of Chechnya’s draconian practices. In 2013, Mr Putin replaced the head of Dagestan, who had tried to counter the creeping Islamist insurgency through dialogue with Salafi Muslims.
Since then, Dagestan has cracked down on Salafism as Chechnya has. Dagestan authorities have also started using Mr Kadyrov’s practice of punishing insurgents’ families by destroying their houses and expelling them.
Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin adviser on Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ukraine for Mr Putin, this year negotiated treaties for a far-reaching integration of the two Georgian breakaway regions with Russia in exchange for more economic aid.
As far as Mr Kadyrov is concerned, the deal is very clear. “If you entrusted this region to me, I must ensure security [here]. If not, please be so good and fire me.”
Cancellation of engagements this week had sparked speculation that president was unwell
Russian state television aired what it said was footage of Vladimir Putin working at his residence outside Moscow on Friday, a first appearance since he dropped out of sight days ago, triggering rumours that he was ill or had been sidelined by internal conflict.
In the footage, Putin was shown in his office at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence, where he conducts many of his meetings, sitting across a table from the supreme court head, Vyacheslav Lebedev, and talking about plans to reform the judicial system.
Dressed in grey suit and a blue patterned tie, he looked no different than usual. In the brief footage, he was shown nodding and smiling as Lebedev spoke, and could be heard saying a few words about the court system.
A planned visit by Putin to the Kazakh capital this week was cancelled with no official explanation, and a meeting in Moscow with a delegation from the Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia was also called off.
On Thursday the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin, 62, was in good health and working as usual. However, the cancellation of engagements sparked feverish speculation on social media – though most Russian mainstream organisations, which are deferential to the Kremlin, steered clear of the issue.
The rumours fed into an atmosphere among Moscow’s political classes that was already more than usually febrile because of the conflict in Ukraine and last month’s killing of the opposition figure Boris Nemtsov.
There was no hard evidence that Putin was ill or that there was any crisis inside the Kremlin. Markets were unruffled by the rumours. The rouble strengthened slightly on Monday after the central bank cut rates by one percentage point, slightly less than some analysts had expected.
The Russian lawmaker kicked out of the country speaks out about Putin, Snowden, and a Russian collapse
In Vladimir Putin’s quest to amass more power, the Russian government has become increasingly corrupt and ever more dangerous for critics and political activists.
Case in point — the suspicious murder of Boris Nemtsov as he walked home across a busy bridge in Moscow almost two weeks ago.
We recently sat down with Ilya Ponomarev — a representative in the lower house of the Russian Parliament who has been banned from Russia for his opposition to Putin — and got his take on what’s going on in Russia today.
Ponomarev believes that the people who killed Nemtsov were affiliated with one of Russia’s state security forces, and says that his murder was meant as a “message to Russian elites… and a message to the West.”
Yet, he thinks that in general Russians are closer aligned to Americans than they are to Europeans and that change will come to the country as early as 2017:
“The actual uprising might start in 2017… We will have major elections in 2016, and that is when economic and financial resources might get depleted by that time because of sanctions and issues with financial liquidities. All the problems will mount and be at their height in 2017. We need to be ready and we need to present Russia with a clear program, with a clear vision of Russia after Putin.”
Ponomarev is a former president of Yukos Oil, the former oil and gas giant that was effectively shut down in 2007 by the Russian government, which redistributed its assets to state companies.
He was elected to the Russian State Duma in 2007, and was the only member who voted against the annexation of Crimea last year. The final vote in Russia’s lower house was 445 to 1. Colleagues warned him beforehand, saying things like “Putin will crush you,” and “Don’t ruin your career.”
The year before, he was the only member of the Duma not to support Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law. Eventually, in August 2014, Ponomarev and several of his aides were banned from Russia (along with several of his aides) and falsely charged with funneling money out of the Skolkovo Foundation — an organization that supports high-tech startups — to finance protests against Putin.
Though he has been banned from Russia, he is still an active member of the Duma. He says that since his constituency voted him in, they are the only ones with the power to revoke his mandate.
Speaking before an audience at the Commonwealth Club, the bearded and battered politico spoke about Putin with disdain. He believes that Putin “wants people to negotiate with him and he wants to have the tradeoffs here and there and spheres of influence.” To Ponomarev, Putin is a creature of the last century.
However, throughout the night, Ponomarev talked with a glimmer in his eye — his wife, whom he had not seen for months, had finally reunited with him after clearing up a visa problem in Bulgaria.
We talked to Ilya Ponomarev before his presentation. Here’s what he had to say:
The following is a transcript of our conversation with Ponomarev; it has been edited for clarity and length.
BUSINESS INSIDER: Who do you think killed Boris Nemtsov?
ILYA PONOMAREV: I think it was somebody very close to Putin. I have doubts that it was his direct order, although he has created this very system which killed [Nemtsov]. I think it was one of the clans who are fighting for influence on Putin. And they want to trigger instability and be those saviors to offer a solution to everything.
BI: Are you worried that what happened to Nemtsov might happen to you?
IP: We have a Russian proverb — “Those who are doomed to be sunk will never be hanged.” I think that you shouldn’t run away from what is in front of you. You should do what you have to do, and leave to it. What can you do? Hire bodyguards? Stop doing anything? It will not save you either.
BI: Are politicians scared of Putin? Are there people looking at what you and Nemtsov have done and being inspired, in that sense?
IP: Some politicians are scared and some are extremely apologetic, actually. And I feel very sorry for this because some people who are like my friends from the left flank, they praise Putin because they see him as the fighter against American imperialism — which he is not. You know, why would you select between American imperialism and Russian imperialism?
To my mind, it’s exactly the same thing. Others — conservatives — they say ‘Oh, Putin is a real leader, he’s a true man, he stays [firm] on his position, he’s not like this weak Obama.’ And also they are very much wrong. Because Putin is not a strong man, he is actually a man that put himself into a corner, and he’s fighting and biting from that corner, being very weak.
BI: Has anyone else you know been fined, kidnapped, or murdered?
IP: We have a lot of people – journalists – that were murdered in Russia. But my own situation is pretty unique. I haven’t seen my wife for half a year. She lives now in Bulgaria and couldn’t get her here because of visa [problems].
BI: How would you best describe your political ideology?
IP: The best description would be that I am a progressive libertarian.
BI: Which political figures do you look up to, people that you base your ideas upon?
IP: I think that my political position of course is very much influenced by thinkers of the left, and those are different people. I pay a lot of attention to what was written by Marx and by Lenin, but also by modern leftists like Wallenstein. I very much pay a lot of attention to what has been written by Noam Chomsky. We have such thinkers in Russia as well, like Boris Kagarlitsky, who is a good friend.
My political tradition is one the left, but I think that more modern leftists, they sometimes get stuck with this vision of large government and social benefits and everything and that’s against what is my position, because I think that the ultimate vision of Marx, Engels and those people was to eliminate government entities and to give as much power to the people.
And in modern standing that means direct democracy, that means all the power to the communities, it means gradually eliminating all government oppression on the society. And 100 years ago, leftists’ major allies were labor unions.
In the world of today, I think that entrepreneurs are the new emerging ruling class — I identify it as the startup class. That’s the new proletariat of the 21st century. These are the people that are the drivers of that change.
BI: How is it that you’re still an active member of Duma?
IP: From the point of view of legislation of the Constitution, my mandate has been given by my constituency. So it’s only my constituency that can revoke my mandate. So until the next election, nobody is supposed to do anything. The next election is in 2016.
BI: When was the last time you were elected?
IP: Last time in 2011. The first time I was elected was in 2007. Originally it was a 4-year term and now it’s a 5-year term. If I would not be able to campaign, I would lose my post.
They can use such reasons like if I’m doing business, then they could justify that I am violating my status. But I’m cautious not to do it. They are looking through a magnifying glass from the outside.
I have a group of very loyal people. We are in the minority very much, basically 10 to 15% of the population that supports what we do. It’s temporary. I think that the high numbers for Putin, they will pass as soon as economic tensions mount.
And then the whole situation will be flipped. It’s important not to alienate people, not to receive negative reaction on yourself but we have to wait a little bit. Bolsheviks in 1914 were a dying sect, the only ones against the war, but just two and a half years later, they came to power.
BI: Russia is obviously a surveillance state. That being said, America has its own conundrums: NSA phone tapping, Edward Snowden, CIA torture tapes. How is the United States different from Russia in this regard?
IP: I think that there are excesses that exist in all societies. I won’t say it’s normal to have them, but it’s natural to have them. I’m watching very closely…what Snowden has done. I don’t know him personally. I wanted to talk to him, but all of the security people didn’t allow me to. But I think that he took the wrong approach to a very right thing which he was doing. Just the implementation was wrong. There was a clear platform to what he was doing, although of course that there were some mistakes made.
I think that it’s inevitable if society will be run by old-timers who are still in the paradigm of the past, so I think the real way to resolve this is if the entrepreneurs go into politics and gradually take over and push for their agenda. You named a bunch of privacy issues which are at this stage secondary to me.
The primary issue is the competition between Uber and traditional taxis, or contradictions between FDA and 23 and me. That, I think is most important. And I think that we are right now — the society — is living in the Facebook era and the political system is still in the 19th century prior to the Industrial era.
Why for God’s sake do you need to be socially liberal and economically conservative? Or to be economically market-oriented but at the same time socially, extremely conservative? Why can’t you be free in both dimensions?
BI: Now let’s bring our conversation to a global scale. Especially now with ISIS looming large close to Russia, what is Russia’s end-goal in the Middle East?
IP: I don’t think there is a conscious and strategic play there. Putin is not a strategist at all. He has brilliant tactics, but he is a very bad strategist overall. And I think he is acting very opportunistically there, just to play the cards with America. He was very proud of himself when he convinced us to give up on chemical weapons so that it could be played down and prevent an invasion and that was very helpful for Obama because Obama saved his face and didn’t order airstrikes at that very moment.
Putin was extremely proud. That’s the kind of thing Putin does. Generally, he thinks of himself as Christian. I don’t think he is, but he pretends to think that he is. In terms of his ideology he’s more like Bush Jr. But he’s less ideological. He’s [thinking] more ‘how to stay in power.’
BI: What is it about Putin then?
IP: He’s just maneuvering. He wants to be respected. He wants to be an important player in global politics. He wants people to negotiate with him and he wants to have the tradeoffs here and there and spheres of influence. He’s very much a person of the 20th century in the global and geopolitical space.
BI: Stratfor predicted in its recent decade report that the Russian Federation will disintegrate into an archipelago of loosely-connected and more localized entities over the next decade as the ruble plunges, the price of oil declines, and the country’s politics get crazier. Do you think Russia is essentially falling apart? What will be of the Russian Federation in the next 10 years?
IP: Russia can fall apart. It’s not because of the oil prices…. It’s because what sticks a country together is a common interest of people. It has to be economically and socially profitable — beneficial — for people to be together. They should understand how they benefit from a large country. And if they start to feel like a large country is a source of problem, then the country collapses as the Soviet Union collapsed.
And right now, I see a lot of alarming trends inside Russia, especially in Siberia, which I represent in the Parliament. People start to ask questions: If we mine all the natural resources — if we have all the oil, all the gas, all the coal, all the gold, all the diamonds — why the hell do we need central Russia?
They are just eating at our resources. Without Moscow having a response for this, it would face very nasty questions such as one that was asked during my recent reelection campaign — it actually became a slogan of my campaign — “Stop feeding Moscow.”
BI: This mindset is similar to that of the Tatars. How is it different?
IP: With Tatars, the situation is a little bit more complex. They are geographically very isolated so they need the rest of Russia. When they pump oil, they need pipelines to deliver it so they need those connections. We in Siberia don’t need those connections. The only thing which actually sticks us together is the cultural similarities and the relatives that are on both sides of the Ural mountains.
BI: Last question — if Putin were standing in front of you at this very moment, what would you say to him? The first words out of your mouth are…
IP: There is nothing I can say. “Goodbye, Mr. Putin,” that’s the only thing I can say.
We need to convince him that if he makes the decision to go, that we are ready to trade his personal security for peaceful resignation. That’s very important because we’re all afraid that he will stick to power to his deathbed and just kill a lot of people along the way. If he is willing to go, we shall buy him an island in the Caribbean or in the Pacific Ocean with nice girls — like a separate country for him.
He’s very much afraid of leaving. Because he is formally right now in his first term, so has another 8 years from now. Legally, he has created all the mechanisms for himself. He’s a lawyer.