Chechnya's peace is built on murder

Yesterday, in especially spineless and despicable fashion, a friend of mine was murdered. She was Natasha Estemirova, 50, the head of the Chechnya office of the human rights organisation Memorial, and one of the bravest people in Russia. For many years – and despite repeated death threats – Estemirova struggled to expose the brutality of state security forces whose attempts to root out separatist rebels in Chechnya were accompanied by wholesale terror against its civilian population.

Around 8.30am yesterday, witnesses saw several unidentified men push Estemirova into a white Lada outside her home in Grozny: she managed to cry out that she was being kidnapped. Eight hours later her body was found dumped by a road in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia with gunshot wounds to her head and chest. Her assassination – for there can be little doubt she was mercilessly silenced – is an outrage that must call into question Moscow's entire strategy in the North Caucasus region.

A single mother of mixed Russian and Chechen parentage, Estemirova worked at Memorial's poky office in central Grozny, near the monument to a trio of heroic Caucasian figures affectionately known as "the three idiots". That office, not far from what is now known without irony as Putin Avenue, has a comfortable and slightly shabby feel. Its lacquered front door sticks in the frame; its loo has no light and a hosepipe instead of a cistern. Estemirova's desk was in a tiny room like a corridor with a colleague behind her, so they sat like two people on a bus: for a private chat she took you to the kitchen out the back and gave you tea and poppyseed cake (I still can't believe I'm writing this in the past tense). She rode to work on the bus and laughed richly at the thought of hiring a bodyguard. Her manner was forthright, warm and accessible.

But the friendly atmosphere at the office was deceptive. Because the sweet-looking old ladies in headscarves who queued in the hallway came not for idle chat, but to tell tales of depravity: a son shot dead at home by masked men in uniform, a nephew detained and tortured, a family made homeless after security forces burnt their house to the ground.

"This is how things are in our new, peaceful Chechnya," Estemirova once told me with a grim smile, after describing the disappearance of a young woman who was kidnapped by camouflaged men in central Grozny. It was such horrors which Estemirova painstakingly recorded and publicised, to the chagrin of Chechnya's Kremlin-backed government. For the man she considered most at fault for the cruelty in recent years was the republic's president, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was appointed by the Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Kadyrov, a 32-year-old former rebel who came over to Russia's side and took power in 2007, is notorious for controlling thousands of armed devotees known as the "kadyrovtsy", who are now supposedly absorbed into official force structures. He brooks no dissent in his republic, and the kadyrovtsy have repeatedly been accused of torture, kidnappings and extra-judicial killings. It is true that the kadyrovtsy are fighting armed and ruthless Islamist militants who have committed terrorist attacks, but their efforts have often spilled into persecution of innocent civilians. One person who wrote about their excesses was the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya (who was assassinated in 2006). Another who investigated abuses was the human rights lawyer, Stanislav Markelov (shot twice in the back of the head in central Moscow in January). A third detractor, who told reporters that Kadyrov personally tortured him, was a former member of the president's bodyguard, Umar Israilov (shot dead in Vienna in January). A fourth, and Kadyrov's most vocal critic inside Chechnya, was Estemirova.

It may be, of course, that this long chain of murders of Kadyrov's opponents is – in that favourite of all Russian theories – "a provocation". That is, a deliberate attempt by his opponents to discredit him by committing heinous acts for which he can be blamed. Kadyrov himself has repeatedly protested he has no connection to the assassinations and yesterday said Estemirova's killers "must be punished as the cruellest of criminals". But as the killing machine goes on, the "provokatsiya" theory is looking increasingly threadbare.

It is some time since strategists in the Kremlin have been pulling out their hair, wondering how they created the monster which is Kadyrov. Installed as a fixer who could stamp out the rebels and rebuild Grozny, he has largely done both things while turning the republic into his own personal fiefdom. Chechnya, traditionally an egalitarian society in which no individual is considered above his peers, is now full of risible billboards of Kadyrov clutching smiling children like some modern day Enver Hoxha ("The streets in Grozny are so clean," say his fans, but the streets are clean in Belarus and North Korea). Political opposition in parliament has been extinguished and many potential opponents are no longer a threat. Kadyrov's greatest rival, the former battalion commander and Hero of Russia, Sulim Yamadayev – himself, admittedly, no fluffy democrat – was rubbed out by an assassin in Dubai in March.

Yesterday, in Estemirova, the most prominent civil society activist still recording abuses inside Chechnya was exterminated. Others had already taken fright and backed off. Estemirova kept on with enormous courage, frequently clashing with Kadyrov, who was incensed by reports of his alleged savagery: at a tense meeting with representatives of Memorial early last year, one member of the organisation says Kadyrov clawed himself and cried, "What can I do to stop you people writing these things about me?"

What is clear is that Kadyrov's hardline rule in Chechnya receives tacit consent from the Kremlin, which signed a Faustian pact with him to quell insurrection and stop terrorist attacks reaching the Russian heartland, in exchange for wide autonomy on his home turf. But there may come a point when Kadyrov becomes just too embarrassing for a civilised country that is a member of the G8. The problem now is that he is practically impossible to sack: his beatification means removal would leave such a gaping power vacuum that the republic could slip once more into chaos.

That does not mean the issue should be fudged. If the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev is serious about solving this murder, the investigation must look hard at the Kremlin's own power structures in Chechnya. Meanwhile, the west must return human rights to the top of its agenda in dealing with Moscow.

Another Russian mantra of modern times is the idea of "stabilnost". Achieving that in Chechnya has ostensibly been the aim of supporting Kadyrov. But peace in the North Caucasus cannot come at the price of human freedom. Because, as Estemirova herself knew so well, stability based on terror and killing is no stability at all.

Tom Parfitt