Here’s how you know Russian politics are different from those practiced in the United States: On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave two of the country’s highest awards to men who’ve been center stage in its most prominent murder cases: the weeks-old shooting death near the Kremlin of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and the 2006 radioactive poisoning in London of a former Russian spy.
The recipients were the Chechen authoritarian leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Andrei Lugovoi, who’s wanted in the United Kingdom on accusations of using polonium to poison Alexander Litvinenko, a onetime Russian spy who became a journalist critical of Putin.
Kadyrov has been a vocal advocate for the theory that Islamic radicals killed Nemtsov because of his support for those gunned down in January at the Paris office of the publication Charlie Hebdo, and he’s heaped praise on the suspects Russian police have arrested in the murder.
Nemtsov’s daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, said on German television this week that such an explanation lacked credibility, noting that her father only once, and as one among millions, voiced support for the victims of the Paris attack. On the other hand, she said, he’d been a constant and longtime critic of Putin.
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Nemtsov was killed late on Feb. 27 in the highly trafficked and usually secure vicinity of the Kremlin. He’d just left a restaurant with his Ukrainian girlfriend and was crossing a well-lit bridge when a gunman ran up from behind and shot him.
Nemtsov’s supporters have noted that the area is one of the most policed areas of Moscow, suggesting that the attack couldn’t have been the work of anyone without the support of the Putin administration. They’ve also said Nemtsov was preparing to release a report detailing the extent of regular Russian military involvement in the war in the southeastern Ukrainian region known as Donbas.
The Putin administration has denied any involvement in the murder and has maintained that the fighting in Donbas is by pro-Russian separatists, perhaps aided by Russian soldiers on vacation from their usual duties.
It was Putin who handed out the medals Monday: a Medal of Honor and a Medal for Service to the Fatherland. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, noted that such award ceremonies are months in the making, so the timing so soon after the Nemtsov murder is purely coincidental. He also said the awards had nothing to do with murder or murder plot allegations but with service to Russia.
But the timing is difficult to ignore. Peskov said Kadyrov had received the honor in recognition of his professional success.
Not long before receiving the Medal of Honor, Kadyrov had been praising one of the men arrested in Nemtsov’s death, calling him “a genuine Russian patriot.” Kadyrov said the suspect, a onetime Interior Ministry officer named Zaur Dadaev, had served Russia with distinction while at the ministry. He wrote on Instagram that Dadaev was “sincerely devoted to Russia, ready to give his life for the motherland.”
Dadaev reportedly has confessed to involvement in Nemtsov’s death.
Kadyrov’s comment was in line with his previous remarks on Nemtsov’s murder. He called another suspected plotter “a very religious man” and he called a third suspect, who blew himself up rather than be arrested, “a courageous warrior.”
Kadyrov, a staunch Putin ally, has been noted for co-opting Islamists in Chechnya with laws including mandatory head scarves for women, but he’s best known for being on the fringe of, though never officially said to be involved in, high-profile murder cases.
Before Nemtsov, talk about Kadyrov concerned the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya, who’d been highly critical of Kadyrov’s brutal methods in running Chechnya, was shot to death outside her Moscow apartment in 2006. While two men were arrested and sentenced to life in prison for her murder, they appeared to be contract killers working on orders, though from whom hasn’t been determined.
And that case appeared to be echoed by the murder of Russian human rights campaigner Natalia Estemirova, another harsh critic of Kadyrov’s rule. In 2009, she was kidnapped off the streets of the Chechen capital of Grozny and shot twice in the head. After the murder, her associates noted that she’d previously been threatened by Kadyrov and been told that he considered her a “personal enemy.”
Monday’s other notorious honoree, Lugovoi, remains a prime suspect in Litvinenko’s murder. His medal was for Merits to the Fatherland, allegedly for promoting the Russian political system as a member of the Duma, the Russian parliament.
Litvinenko was highly critical of Putin as well. After his death, British authorities found polonium 210, at amounts 200 times a lethal dose, in his body and were able to track the radioactive material to Lugovoi and another Russian suspect. Since 2007, the United Kingdom has requested that Lugovoi be returned to stand trial, a request that Russia has refused.
Litvinenko had angered Putin with a book alleging that Russian secret services had staged bombings and terror attacks to create an atmosphere necessary to bring Putin to power.
Nemtsov, 55 when he was murdered, was a longtime force in Russian politics. He was one of the architects of modern Russian capitalism, and he’d served as deputy prime minister under former President Boris Yeltsin.