String of murders chills Chechen exiles in Europe

Mamikhan Umarov turned to the camera in front of Vienna’s airport last week and dared Chechnya’s strongman ruler to kill him.

“Come and stop me!” he said in a video he posted on YouTube. “Send your toughest guy, I’ll tear him a new one.”

Two days later, Umarov — better known as his YouTube alter ego Anzor from Vienna — was shot dead, the fourth assassination or attempted killing of a Chechen dissident in Europe over the past year.

Umarov’s murder last weekend appears to be the latest in an intensifying string of attacks on critics of Ramzan Kadyrov, the former warlord who rules the mostly Muslim province in Russia’s north Caucasus Mountains. 

The killings have struck fear into Europe’s more than 100,000 Chechen exiles, many of whom fled the abductions, torture and disappearances that rights groups said are rife in the region after two bloody separatist wars between 1994 and 2009.

Critics said the Kremlin has turned a blind eye to reports of abuses in Chechnya in exchange for Mr Kadyrov’s fealty to President Vladimir Putin. 

The Chechen leader was “trying to put down any and all criticism,” said Mansur Sadulaev, who runs Vayfond, an aid organisation for Chechen exiles in Vienna. “He’s done it in Chechnya and his dictatorial ambitions have convinced him that nobody should be allowed to do it in Europe or anywhere else.”

On Thursday, Mr Kadyrov published a statement on messaging app Telegram accusing western intelligence of murdering the Chechen dissidents to make him look bad.

“Don’t become puppets, take care of your families. Otherwise the same fate awaits you, and they will blame Kadyrov and his team,” he wrote.

Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, told reporters on Thursday that Russia had “no detailed information” about Umarov’s murder. “If he criticised Ramzan Kadyrov and he’s a Chechen, does that mean we immediately have to talk about Kadyrov? That’s illogical,” he said.

Umarov, a former mercenary for Chechnya’s separatist government in the 1990s, moved to Austria in 2005, fearing reprisals against his family.

Friends of his told the Financial Times he began working with Austrian intelligence a few years later, after his brother allegedly died at the hands of Chechen security forces.

Umarov was a witness in the investigation into the 2009 murder of former Kadyrov bodyguard Umar Israilov in Vienna, prompting Austrian authorities to designate him a “person at risk”. In February, he said he had given Austrian and Ukrainian intelligence telephone recordings of conversations with middlemen who ordered hits on then Ukrainian MP Ihor Mosiychuk and two Chechen rebel fighters in 2017.

Since Mr Kadyrov succeeded his father as Moscow’s ally during the second Chechen war in the mid-2000s, many of his rivals have met sticky ends. Germany accused Moscow of ordering a hit on former insurgent fighter Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin’s Tiergarten in August last year and expelled two Russian diplomats in response.

Most of the Chechens previously killed abroad were pretenders to Mr Kadyrov’s throne or had fought Russia in an Islamist insurgency that carried out several bombings. Mr Putin said Khangoshvili was a “cruel and bloodthirsty person” who organised terrorist attacks in the Moscow metro.

But the targets of recent attacks appeared to have transgressed by publicly criticising Mr Kadyrov. In January, French police found Imran Aliyev, a Chechen exile in Belgium who published tirades against Mr Kadyrov, dead in a hotel in Lille with 135 stab wounds. 

A month later, blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov fought off a hammer-wielding attacker at his home in Sweden. 

Mr Abdurakhmanov blamed the continued attacks on an EU response he said was too weak to deter Russian and Chechen forces. “What is Russia supposed to think? ‘Oh no, they expelled two diplomats! That’s it, we can’t kill anyone any more, otherwise they’ll expel two more diplomats!’ Obviously it won’t stop them.”

Ramzan Kadyrov has accused western intelligence of murdering Chechen dissidents to make him look bad © Musa Sadulayev/AP
Mamikhan Umarov launched a series of tirades against the Chechen leader and his entourage and dared them to kill him © YouTube

Friends of Umarov said he decided to go public against Mr Kadyrov on YouTube earlier this year after Ukrainian secret services delayed acting on his information about a fresh plot against Mr Mosiychuk. The videos consisted almost solely of foul-mouthed insults against Mr Kadyrov and his entourage, whom he intermittently dared to kill him.

“He swore because that’s the only language they understand. They talk to our relatives in that language, so why can’t we talk back to them in the same way?” said Husein Iskhanov, who runs a Chechen cultural centre in Vienna.

The posts quickly made “Anzor” a cult figure: some racked up hundreds of thousands of views — significant, given Chechnya’s 1.2m population.

Mr Abdurakhmanov said he had passed on rumours to Umarov that Chechen authorities were offering €20m for his head. Mr Mosiychuk said a Ukrainian lawyer had urged Umarov’s wife to disown him publicly over the videos.

On Wednesday, another YouTube channel published what appeared to be an audio message Umarov recorded in case of his death. “They’re putting pressure on my mother and my sister, they want to take their house and make money from it, and it won’t end there,” Umarov said.

Police have arrested two suspects in Umarov’s killing who they said were Chechen refugees who had lived in Austria since the early 2000s. France said the suspect in Aliyev’s murder was a Chechen who spent several days with the blogger’s family, lured him to his death and returned to Russia immediately afterwards.

Mr Sadulaev said Vayfond had identified several Chechens living as exiles in Europe who had posted photos on social media showing them with Kadyrov’s entourage on trips home. “But European countries won’t do anything about it. They go home, they pretend to be refugees and they get asylum,” he said.

Austrian police said they had offered Umarov protection but he had declined. Musa Lomaev, a Chechen exile in Finland, said friends of Umarov’s provided some security but were unable to guard him around the clock. 

“He knew they would kill him. He didn’t have any illusions about it, so he tried to say as much as he could in the time he had left,” Mr Lomaev said. 

In the audio message published on Wednesday, Umarov appeared to say as much himself. “I want to blame the Austrian authorities for inactivity, because they gave me asylum, said, ‘Live here,’ and then wiped their feet with me,” he said. “If something happens to me, I blame them foremost.”