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Yashin vs. Kadyrov: Russia’s David vs. Goliath

Political analyst Dmitry Travin and Ilya Yashin on the set of Radio Svoboda, Dec 14, 2015
Yashin vs. Kadyrov: Russia’s David vs. Goliath

It was a daring move. Friends and colleagues of slain opposition politician Boris Nemtsov have many challenges in Putin’s increasingly repressive Russia. They’re ignored by mainstream media and attacked verbally and physically for voicing opposition to Putin’s policies. And it seems that Putin has no intention of relinquishing his hold on power anytime soon. They barely get any attention, let alone justice.

IMG_9713.JPGYet Ilya Yashin just went ahead and posted a frank “Open Letter” to Chechen head of state Ramzan Kadyrov, challenging him to meet “man-to-man” to answer questions about Boris Nemtsov’s murder. Kadyrov has links to those accused of Nemtsov’s murder, and some believe he played a role in the cover-up or even in the execution of the crime. (You can read my previous post with a translation and analysis of Yashin’s letter at

The two men could not have more opposite public images. Yashin is cleancut, of slight build and quite boyish in appearance. A sweet, bookish, underdog type.  Kadyrov by contrast is scruffy, has a husky build, and looks slightly older than his age. And of course he’s very fond of posting selfies with weapons, tigers and black belts. Kadyrov’s image is that of the quintessential wild-eyed macho man.







If this were a bygone era, you could imagine Yashin’s challenge leading to a duel, in which case, Yashin would be toast rather quickly. A matchup between Yashin and Kadyrov just wouldn’t be a fair fight. Yet it could end up like David and Goliath. And perhaps that is what makes it so daring and intriguing.

Russian opposition leaders posted their support, like a stream of high-fives. Alexey Navalny wrote on his blog: “Everyone’s read the wonderful and courageous (without any irony) letter Ilya Yashin wrote to Kadyrov.” Leonid Volkov tweeted: “What a good guy that Yashin is.”

It’s been over a day, and still no response from Kadyrov to Yashin’s Open Letter challenge. “Twenty four hours have passed. Kadyrov is silent,” tweets Yashin.

While Kadyrov remains silent, Yashin has been talking and explaining his letter. You can watch the conversation at Radio Svoboda (Radio Liberty) in Russian. I’ve summarized some of the main points below the video.

For the past month or so Yashin has been working on an investigative report about the political regime of Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya. Yashin says he’s concerned that this regime, which has Putin’s support, poses a national security threat to Russia.

Since Ramzan Kadyrov is a main subject of the report, Yashin says he would like to engage him in direct conversation, giving Kadyrov an opportunity to comment while also answering many lingering questions. Kadyrov’s reputation, he says, is one of fearlessness and candor. Yashin is testing this reputation with a public call for a response.

Yashin states he has many questions, from corruption to the Nemtsov assassination. The main questions concern these topics:

Corruption: I have questions about the corruption that has engulfed Chechnya. Billions of rubles annually allocated from the federal budget of the Chechen Republic have dissolved into a black hole. The Ramzan Kadyrov’s Fund is used like a personal wallet. He swims in luxury while the rest of the country falters.

Private Army: I have questions about Kadyrov’s private army, which has been around for a while now. I’d like to know who exactly he plans on fighting. This is unprecedented. No other region in Russia has a regional private army… who pledge their loyalty to Ramzan personally.

Political Assassinations: Over the past 10-15 years, Kadyrov’s name has figured in several high profile assassinations, many declared personal enemies of Kadyrov. These include his former bodyguard Israilov, the brothers Ruslan and Sulim Yamadayev, Novaya Gazeta journalist Anya Politkovskaya, and Boris Nemtsov. Kadyrov’s name invariably comes up in the investigations of all of these cases but not a single time has he actually been brought in for questioning.

Yashin also says, quite pointedly, that if Kadyrov doesn’t respond to his request for a dialogue, this will signal Kadyrov’s weakness. The consensus seems to be that there is no way a conversation between the David and the Goliath will ever happen.

I have a few questions too. Will Kadyrov respond? How long will it take? Is Yashin crazy to so publicly challenge someone powerful enough to add him to the long list of high-profile assassinations?? That last question is not just the Jewish mother in me speaking. It’s an unfortunate fact that Russians who investigate corruption and criminal activity in Chechnya don’t live very long. But what choice does an honorable person in Russia have? To paraphrase a famous Russian moral question, What’s a Russian to do? Be silent? Cower in fear? Simply forget Nemtsov was murdered in view of the Kremlin?

For Nemtsov’s friends and colleagues, his murder demands they continue his struggle, as a moral as well as a political issue. For many Russians, Nemtsov’s murder hit a nerve many forgot they had. Even though Nemtsov had been the target of a campaign of public vilification in state-run media for years, his assassination woke up tens of thousands of Russians to a Russia they thought was behind them. Russians not only came out on the streets for the funeral of a famous statesman. They marched because they realized important people violently losing their lives for political change in Russia. Whether supporters of Nemtsov or not, Russians know something is wrong when politicians are gunned down near Red Square. Such a brazen crime is reminiscent of the chaotic, lawless, dark days after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But hasn’t Putin changed all that? Isn’t that why Russians love and support him? For the stability and order his regime brought to a Russia plagued with lawlessness? If chaos and lawlessness is back, even Putin supporters might question whether Putin is really a source of stability.

Boris Nemtsov spent his last year of life telling any Russian who would listen that Putin was not a source of stability who raised Russia off its proverbial knees. In fact, Putin was a source of the exact opposite. His rule brought crisis and war, bringing Russia down domestically and in the international community. Nemtsov believed democracy and change was possible in Russia. He worked tirelessly to that end, organizing, writing, talking, marching. His voice was loud and resonant. Unfortunately, Nemtsov’s murder and related crackdown on the civil and human rights of other opposition voices has been a dramatic setback for those awaiting democratic change in Russia.

And here we come to the main question: When will Putin go? Will there even be a power transition in our lifetime? Yashin is so brave and earnest, perhaps he might consider asking for a candid conversation with Putin, Kadyrov’s mentor and supporter? Mano-a-mano. Couldn’t he ask Putin the same questions he wants to ask of Kadyrov? About corruption, private forces, political assassinations?

imgres-1 copyJust asking such questions seems almost blasphemous in the current atmosphere in Russia. First, let’s hope Yashin survives his Chechen investigation. One day at a time. One despot at a time.

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