In Depth

Are Chechen assassins roaming Europe - and is Vladimir Putin involved?

Dissident blogger who criticised the Russian leader’s ally becomes latest exile to meet violent end

A Chechen blogger has been shot dead in Vienna in the latest in a series of killings of dissidents from the Russian republic.

The victim is believed to be Mamikhan Umarov, “who has been living in exile for nearly 20 years” and “had a popular YouTube blog where he was critical of the Chechen government”, says The Telegraph

According to The Times, Austrian police believe the attack on Saturday night “was a contract killing ordered from Russia”.

His death comes less than a month after Germany formally accused the Russian government of ordering another killing. Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a rebel commander during the 1999-2009 Chechen war, was shot in the head in a park in Berlin in August 2019.

Vladimir Putin has denied any Russian involvement in Khangoshvili’s death, and the Russian embassy in Vienna has declined to comment on the latest attack.

There seems little doubt, though, that someone is hunting former Chechen rebels and also bloggers who have criticised Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov - a man described as “Putin’s protege” by The Washington Post.

Recent attacks include:

  • in February, Chechen blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov survived a hammer attack in the Swedish town of Gavle

  • in January, Chechen opposition leader Imran Aliyev died in Lille, after being stabbed 135 times

  • in September 2017, a car bomb in Kiev killed Ali Timayev, a Chechen fighter with Georgian citizenship. Ukraine has also accused Russia of involvement in at least three other attacks against Chechens, one of them fatal, on its soil

  • between 2003 and 2015, at least eight Chechens were killed in Turkey, and several others survived attacks.

In some of these cases, including the killing of Khangoshvili in Berlin, the assassins appear to have been issued with “valid documents in the name of a fake persona, along with the full registration of such non-existing persons in all government databases”, says Bellingcat. This “could not have been done without the direct involvement of the Russian State”, the investigative website concludes.

But in other cases, the orders may have come not from Moscow but rather Grozny, the Chechen capital.

After “two devastating separatist wars in the 1990s”, The Telegraph explains, the Kremlin “struck a deal with a rebel leader who ruled the region until he was assassinated in 2004. The rebel leader’s son, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been at the helm since then, creating a fiefdom that he rules with an iron fist.”

As Kadyrov has settled scores and consolidated power, assassinations have been “carried out on the Chechen leader’s whim” and with no involvement from Moscow, the New Statesman reports. While Putin trusts Kadyrov to “keep a lid on the ever-simmering Chechen conflict”, he has little control over the “bearded warlord”, the magazine adds. 

“Moscow doesn’t really have a say,” according to Russian security analyst Mark Galeotti. “Moscow elevated Kadyrov, funds Kadyrov, and allows Kadyrov to continue - but in some ways they, too, are hostages to him.”

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