As news broke of Wednesday's murder of Russian Human Rights's activist Natalya Estemirova, it did not take long for President Dmitry Medvedev to offer his condolences to her family and appoint a committee to investigate a crime widely covered by international media. But was this merely a reaction to avoid repetition of the Politkovskaya PR-fiasco? In the domestic media arena, there was no comparison in coverage, provoking anger, resignation, and accusations of hypocrisy among Russia's liberal bloggers. However, looking at the wider picture, others see the Estemirova case as yet another herald of troubles ahead for the Putin-Medvedev tandemocracy, and believe that Medvedev reacted to the murder out of honest concern and worry.
The first, and obvious, question for all touched by the murder of one of Russia's foremost human rights’ defenders is: Who could commit such a heineous act?
Fingers have been pointed at both Putin and Kadyrov, resulting in the Chechen President threatening to sue Estemirova's organization, Memorial, for libel. Still, the question remains, who were the murderers, and who stood behind them?
LJ user Andrei Naliotov is wondrous about [RUS] the character of the murderer, as opposed to that of Estemirova:
I cannot understand what kind of person one has to be, to shoot at a doctor, hurrying to save the sick or the wounded, at a priest praying to save souls, at a human rights defender, pulling people out of misery? I knew Natalya Estemirova. When I first spoke to her, I was surprised by her courage: To challenge power in today's totalitarian Chechnya, doing so living in Grozny – takes the highest of courage. But to stand on the side of truth and save people was superior to all for her. “No village without one righteous.” Natalya was the righteous of Chechnya. Let her memory live eternally.
Whereas Medvedev's statement on the murder, may have averted international repercussions, reactions in Russian media were sparse, and LJ user tupikin accounts for [RUS] his own feelings and others’ neglect to cover the issue:
Almost the entire day was spent in a realm of black colour. At first, the press conference about yesterday's kidnapping and murder of Grozny Human Rights defender Natalya Estemirova (judging from comments on my post – a single one – one might think that it is only of interest for anti-Kremlin websites, whereas none of my best friends showed any interest whatsoever). Tell me, honestly, do you think that Human Rights’ defenders are crazy? Or rather, predestined to die? OK, the press conference gathered 60 journalists, including ten TV-cameras. When Ludmila Alexeyeva, chairman of the Moscow Helsinki group, asked national [i.e. Russian] journalists to raise their hands, it turned out to be no more than 15 people. The news, which has circled world media, is received, here in our country, with amazing stoicism, as if that simply is the way it has to be. Really, not 60, but 160 journalists should have come… Well, that is not some other country, but it is all ours. [---] and then Ludmila Alexeyeva added that two people were guilty – Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin. [---] I don't know whether the tacit readers of my LiveJournal understand, that this is a sensation of all-Russian proportions [---] that two of the most high-ranking state officials in Russia were named as accomplices to a political murder in front of TV-cameras and tens of journalists. The ground did not shake, only silence followed. As I wrote these words on the keyboard of my old notebook, it was as if the finger-touches forming letters were like the strikes from the Tsar Bell…
Turning to the political ramifications of the murder, there are bloggers who underline how problematic and untimely the Estemirova case is for Medvedev, possibly adding to an alleged domestic political campaign to undermine the president's power and legitimacy. Consequently, LJ user anaitiss writes [RUS]:
It is the second political murder during Medvedev's presidential term. What's more, straight after Obama's visit. Moreover, just as the provocation with “the drunk Medvedev” at the G8 [summit] failed. And then, if we are to be honest, in a region where the guilty are nowhere to be found, even if we all know who everyone is thinking of. And also, exactly when America, personified by Obama, has deserted the local revolutionaries (they even write about this themselves). And boy, how they were abandoned! And this, having formed the joint McFaul-Surkov commission [US-Russian working group on human rights]. They simply have to portray Medvedev as “a bloody tyrant, trampling justice”, they really have to. To make matters such, that any dialogue between ourselves and the West becomes impossible. “The second Politkovskaya” is an ideal scenario, one must admit that much. And moreover, in the Caucasus.
Human Rights and the disrespect for law is a matter of great concern for the Russian president – a lawyer by profession. With little over a year in office, turning the tide on rule of law seems a precondition for Medvedev to efficiently exercise power at a time when Russia experiences an economic downturn not seen since the 1998 financial crisis. Although trusitic, it suffices to point out that Putin back in 2001 – a year and a half into his first presidential term – was not the uncontested source of power and authority that marked the last years of his reign. So, that could barely be expected from Medvedev. At a recent discussion on the rule of law and Human Rights, published on his blog [RUS], Medvedev characterised the problem of Russian lawlessness accordingly:
MEDVEDEV: You were speaking about massive lawlessness. As a matter of fact, we live in a country with a very complicated relationship to law [---] and a very relaxed and tolerant [attitude] to lawlessness. But it is not a secret that one has to be able to fight for justice. We have no culture of fighting for justice, we simply don't. [---] How do we handle this? At first, we turn to some bureaucrat – once, twice, and still no result whatsoever. Then we turn to the media, as an alternative source of power, but if there is no result, to whom do we write letters?
REPLY: To you.
MEDVEDEV: To me. That is totally correct. So that is the hierarchy for defending human rights.
REPLY: Then one turns to Strasbourg [the European Court of Human Rights].
The last remark is illustrative of Medvedev's dilemma, when confronted with Estemirova's murder, and the general lawlessness of current Russia. In matters of human rights and the rule of law, the President of the Russian Federation appears not to be the supreme authority and guarantor of the constitution. It is to Strasbourg the Russian citizens turn as a last resort when their own judicial system fails to deliver on their constitutional rights.
Consequently, reinstating law and order stands out as a crucial credibility issue for Medvedev, and moreover as a make or break for his own capacity to exercise the power invested in him. Judging from Medvedev's views, and those of some bloggers, the law is also one of the major problems of today's Russia, as it touches the very fine line of political statecraft – the balance-act between continuity and change, stability and progress. Whereas the murder may not be a mystery to most, for Medvedev it is a mystery how to solve it, as part and parcel of general Russian disrespect for law.