Andrew Osborn








Russian Revelation: Natalya Estemirova slain

E!Sharp, 1st September 2009 09:46

The news didn’t seem real when it came. Natalya Estemirova was, without exaggeration, one of Chechnya’s bravest and brightest human rights activists. Her murderers seemed to mock her, even in death. She spent years investigating abductions and extra-judicial killings in Chechnya. In the end, the killers got her too. On her way to work, she was bundled into a car, shot, and dumped like road kill – like so many of the victims whose tragic fates she followed.

A few months ago, I saw her speak at a Moscow memorial rally for a murdered human rights lawyer and close friend of hers – Stanislav Markelov. She spoke eloquently as a banner in the crowd caught my eye – “Stop the political killings,” it read. “Who will be next?” asked another. Now we know. It’s not a one-off – of course – but part of a deadly pattern. Estemirova worked with journalist Anna Politkovskaya before she too – in 2006 – was shot dead. What joins the dots?

Chechnya? Its Kremlin-backed President Ramzan Kadyrov? He angrily denied involvement in this murder as he did in all the others. Yet Estemirova’s murder gives the lie to Kremlin claims that its solution for Chechnya – giving huge power to Kadyrov – is working.

It also shows that President Dmitri Medvedev’s favourite hobbyhorse – restoring the rule of law in Russia – remains as grotesque as ever.

Barack Obama’s Moscow visit offered a little light relief. After all the build-up, it was odd to see the POTUS, as his aides call him, repeatedly fluff the Russian president’s surname and get Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s title wrong too. The exact nature of Washington’s much vaunted “reset” in relations with Moscow remains murky. Obama seemed to do his best to show the Russians respect, something they complain they don’t get. But a couple of weeks later, Vice President Joe Biden – in an interview with The Wall Street Journal – seemed to do his best to humiliate the Russians. Maybe it’s the “good-cop bad-cop” routine. Or maybe it was meant to reassure Georgia, a country Biden had just visited. Either way, it has the Kremlin and everyone else wondering what the reset really means.

The Kremlin wrote his obituary a year ago, calling him “a political corpse”. Yet Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is still very much in office. A crushing defeat at the hands of the Russian army last August shook him badly, as did a wave of internal political unrest that followed. But the Harry Houdini of post-Soviet politics has proved more durable than many thought and the Kremlin hoped. “Misha”, as he is universally known, is not your average world leader. Over the years, I have found myself drinking whisky with him in a sauna, flying in his presidential jet, and attending quirky press conferences in the small hours of the morning. Needless to say, other presidents are not so media-friendly.

So it was that I found myself interviewing him recently over dinner at the top of a tower on the Black Sea coast as an electrical storm crackled in the night sky. A year on from Georgia’s war with Russia, Misha still has his famous charisma, drive and energy. But his hopes of Georgia joining NATO, the EU, or of reunifying his country anytime soon are, by his own admission, greatly diminished. He believes in those goals as passionately as ever. But political survival is one thing and realpolitik – after a short disastrous war – is quite another.

A new Russian-Georgian war of the kind that took the world by surprise last year seems unlikely in 2009. But Misha is waging his own soft war against Moscow. It is a war fought with cement mixers, willing investors, bricks and mortar, and roads.

If you can’t beat them on the battlefield, how about beating them when it comes to quality of life and infrastructure? That is Misha’s credo and it is not purely a matter of pride. He hopes to one day lure back Georgia’s two breakaway pro-Russian regions – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – by showing their inhabitants that life in Georgia is better. His plan, he admits, is inspired by the Cold War duel over Berlin when the West demonstrated its economic superiority by pouring money into West Berlin to highlight how drab communist East Berlin was.

The city Misha has chosen as a showcase is Batumi, a lush sub-tropical Black Sea resort. At a frenetic meeting with a pair of Spanish architects, I watch him personally shape the town’s future skyline. Batumi, he says without a hint of irony, will be a second Barcelona. A lover of everything that is glass, he approves plans for a dramatic seafront development that he calls the torch of freedom. Hotels, offices, sculptures and even an opera house are also planned. This, it seems, is the new frontline with Russia.