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Published in Stream:
Russia Update: March 10, 2015
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Putin Hands Kadyrov a Medal After He Praised Suspect in Nemtsov's Murder; Awards Lugovoi, Suspect in Litvinenko's Poisoning
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President Vladimir Putin has handed out high-profile awards to two officials related to the murder of two prominent critics of his regime, prompting speculation that the Russian leader has decided to brazen out Western condemnation of his rule and reward his henchmen.

Yesterday, March 9, President Vladimir Putin announced he was awarding Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov with the Order of Honor "for professional successes, active civic activity and many years of conscientious work," New Times (NT) reported. He also issued an award to parliamentary member Andrei Litvinenko, the chief suspect in the poisoning death of former intelligence aggent Alexander Litvinenko.

The timing and optics couldn't be worse.

As Parfitt wrote in The Telegraph:

The state medal – given for “many years of conscientious work” – appeared to be an endorsement of Mr Kadyrov, awarded less than 24 hours after he publicly praised Zaur Dadayev, who was charged at the weekend with Boris Nemtsov’s murder. 

While a Kremlin spokesman said the timing was coincidental, but Nemtsov's colleagues and friends wondered if it was "sending a message" -- approval of Kadyrov, even as suspicion was cast on him when a key suspect in Nemtsov's murder was found to be a decorated soldier of his Interior Troops.

Kadyrov praised Dadayev, who received medals for bravery and service in 2010, and noted that he was a "devout Muslim," but he said he had left the service under circumstances that were not known, and would investigate.

Investigators say they have tied Dadayev to the murder ostensibly through DNA sample matches with hair found in the getaway car. But as a statement from a law-enforcement source indicated last night, investigators are still trying to tie him to the murder weapon -- which was not found, and may have been thrown in the nearby Moscow River.

Meanwhile, Nemtsov's colleagues feel as if the award follows a pattern often seen in Putin's regime -- for example, when raises and medals were given to the officials responsible for leaving tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky to die in prison or when Putin signaled his ongoing support for persons put on Western sanction lists.

Political analyst Alexey Makarkin told NT that the award of Kadyrov "could be viewed as a recognition by Russian authorities of the lack of alternative to his regime in Chechnya." He may have been assured now that he will not face any criticisms related to Nemtsov's murder (translation by The Interpreter):

"It is clear that Kadyrov knew he would be awarded the order. For people of that rank, nothing is a surprise. This award could be perceived as a signal to Kadyrov that there are no complaints, at least major ones. Therefore Kadyrov can calmly call the suspects in the murder of Nemtsov heroes, knowing that he won't be touched," Makarin said in a conversation with NT."

Vladimir Milov, chairman of the Democratic Choice party, told NT he does not see parallels in the awarding Kadyrov and arresting the suspects:

"Ramzan Kadyrov plans an important role in the existing political system, he has to be given incentive from time to time. And if we speak of the "Chechen footprint," then I believe that this operation is a cover-up, and that the intelligence agencies are behind the crime itself."

Dmitry Peskov, presidential administration spokesman told that such awards "take several months" to organize, and it was a coincidence, says NT.

While anything can take months in the Russian bureaucracy, if leaders decide a medal has to be given, it means merely taking an existing template for a certain award and ceremony and scheduling it. Such was done suddenly for the paratroopers of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division when Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made an unscheduled flight to Pskov to hand out medals after a number of the soldiers of the 76th were reported as killed in Ukraine.

As NT notes, Kadyrov has received awards in the past and has proudly shown them off on his official web site -- in 2004, he was given the "Hero of Russia" award and has been handed numerous other medals for his service in protecting public order and national security and protecting children -- the last personally from Russia's child ombudsman Pavel Astakhov who seemed oblivious to the children left fatherless by the numerous disappearances that have occurred in Chechnya.

While the issue of timing may be debated endlessly on Kadyrov, the other medal handed out yesterday with equally bad timing suggests that indeed Putin is trying to demonstratively award the very people the West views as responsible for murder.

Lugovoi is a member of the State Duma and former security agent in the Federal Protective Service (FSO) who is the chief suspect in the poisoning of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko. A public inquiry into his murder is currently under way in London.

The full statement about his award on the Russian government's legal site containing presidential decrees (page 8) gives his title as"deputy chair of the Committee of the State Duma for Security and Anti-Corruption" without mentioning his KGB, FSB and FSO past, and says the medal is awarded "for courage and bravery displayed in the performance of his professional duty under conditions fraught with risk for his life."

The  attorney for Litvinenko's widow told the inquiry today Putin's award is "the clearest possible message" of Putin's support.

As the Guardian reported:

On Monday, the Russian president granted Lugovoi a medal for “services to the motherland”. Over the past three weeks the inquiry has heard damning evidence which suggests Lugovoi smuggled polonium to Britain three times, poisoning Litvinenko in November 2006 during a meeting with him at a Mayfair hotel.

Ben Emmerson, the QC for Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, said the timing of Putin’s decision was no coincidence. It came, he said, on day 22 of the inquiry and after “a substantial amount of evidence has been called establishing Lugovoi’s involvement in the murder”.

He added: “[It] is clearly both a provocation from president Putin and the clearest possible message he identifies himself with Mr Lugovoi.”

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick