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Dmitry Muratov
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Waiting on Chechnya’s justice system ‘Novaya Gazeta’ chief editor Dmitry Muratov responds to Ramzan Kadyrov’s latest threats

Source: Meduza
Dmitry Muratov
Dmitry Muratov
Mikhail Mettsel / TASS / Vida Press

On April 13, during a live stream on Instagram and then later on his Telegram channel, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov condemned a recent report written by Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina about the spread of coronavirus inside the Chechen Republic. Milashina’s story described shortages of protective gear among doctors and mass arrests of people who violate the government’s strict self-isolation requirements. Kadyrov accused Russia’s Federal Security Service of “aiding and abetting” Novaya Gazeta and demanded that the intelligence community “stop these monsters,” adding, “If you want us to commit a crime and become criminals, just say so! One [of us] will take on this responsibility and serve his time, as required by law. He’ll do his time and then he’ll be released!” On April 15, Russia’s federal media censor, Roskomnadzor, forced Novaya Gazeta to unpublish Milashina’s article (which is archived and still accessible here), after state prosecutors argued that the text included “inaccurate information” that posed a threat to public safety (though officials never actually identified the supposedly false information). Editors at Novaya Gazeta say Kadyrov’s comments are a threat and point out that Milashina was attacked earlier this year in Grozny. Meduza spoke to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, about this latest confrontation with Ramzan Kadyrov.

Do you view Kadyrov’s recent statements as a direct threat against Novaya Gazeta’s journalists? How seriously should we take these remarks?

We view this statement as a speech on a foreign platform known as Telegram. Kadyrov ordered his police chiefs to investigate the attack against our special correspondent, Milashina, and her lawyer, [Marina] Dubrovina, so we still expect that this investigation will be carried out and that we’ll get results. As for his threatening tone, this isn’t the first time he’s addressed Novaya Gazeta like this. I don’t even want to remember what happened when we reported the story about gay people in Chechnya.

Will you go to the police over Kadyrov’s latest statement?

Right now, our lawyers are assessing the situation, as usual, to see if there’s any reason to make it a legal matter. We’ll need a couple more days to sort this out. We’ve got things happening every day that require the involvement of our legal department. 

Novaya Gazeta regularly publishes critical reports about Chechnya and its leader. Why do you think Kadyrov responded so sharply to this story?

Maybe you just haven’t fully grasped this algorithm, as it were. He responds sharply to pretty much any kind of interference in the public life of his republic. When police officers from the Stavropol Territory crossed into Chechnya, I remember he said publicly then: “if they set foot here again, we’ll open fire.” Or just recently when Prime Minister Mishustin said that the leaders of some republics had decided to close their boundaries and Kadyrov’s response was basically: “we closed them and we’re keeping them closed.” Or when there was the case against [human rights activist Oyub] Titiyev. It was decided to “shut Titiyev up” and, bang, two dozen surveillance cameras with eyes on how everything went down suddenly turned out to be inactive. 

When human rights activists come, they set fire to their minibuses, and when a member of the European Court of Human Rights, torture chairman [Igor] Kalyapin, comes, they drench him in shit and cover him with feathers.

And when Milashina and Dubrovina came there three weeks ago, they were attacked right there in the hotel lobby in front of all the cameras. But Chechnya’s police chiefs say now that there’s no evidence and no witnesses. So when you ask “why now?” my answer is, no, it’s not just now but always. Ramzan Akhmatovich Kadyrov is certain that he needs this kind of management to control and maintain his grip on the republic. He’s genuinely convinced; he believes he is the commander-in-chief of an army and that he has to hold back the terrorists. To do this, he thinks he must lead his republic like this. The most interesting thing is that the Chechen people are apparently quite happy about it.

For a time, it seemed like the Chechen authorities had decided to brush aside revelations by journalists with denials or jokes. Has something changed now?

To the credit of the Chechen government, I should note that before Ramzan Akhmatovich Kadyrov released this strange, nervous message that surprised everyone — note that it was written in capslock, which demonstrates an extreme degree of irritation — I got a call from the Chechen government’s new press secretary. He said that he has some complaints about the article. Our conversation was quite expressive. I asked him to send us a clarification about what exactly they objected to in our story because I couldn’t understand over the phone what the issue was. But I told him that we’d wait and that we have a “Right to Reply” section. I promised that we wouldn’t make any edits to their text. Unfortunately, we never received a letter from them about their issues with the story.

You see, keeping a cool head is one of those things that comes and goes. We hope this cool-headedness will return, we’ll get an answer from them, and we’ll be able to maintain a normal professional relationship on other issues. 

What’s happened with the investigation into the February attack on Milashina in Chechnya? How’s the case going?

It hasn’t gone anywhere. So far, we haven’t gotten any answers. In accordance with the law, our attorneys filed all the necessary applications and claims. Right now, their examination is supposedly ongoing. Nobody knows what’s happening here, but yesterday there was a video clip where you can see Kadyrov ordering his police chiefs: “Find them and get to the bottom of it.” And they answered that there is no witness evidence. We’re waiting to see if they find any witnesses or evidence.

We ourselves are interested to find out how effective Chechnya’s law-enforcement system is. Kadyrov gave his police chiefs an order. An order is when deadlines are set, people are made responsible, there’s an examination, findings are reported, and witnesses are questioned, in particular Milashina and Dubrovina. 

And have they been questioned?

On the day of the attack, the Chechen police took their statements. There’s been nothing since then. But now we see that Kadyrov has issued these new orders. So we’ll count on the Chechen police’s high level of professionalism.

Will Milashina continue to cover the situation in Chechnya?

We belong to the national media that operates throughout Russia. So long as the Chechen Republic is part of Russia — and I hope it always will be — Novaya Gazeta will cover what happens in the North Caucasus, in Dagestan, in Chechnya, and in Ingushetia. 

But will Milashina still be a part of this?

That’s an internal matter for the editorial staff, so I’m not prepared to answer questions at this time about who exactly will be involved. We have many absolutely outstanding experts on the North Caucasus. We’ll think about it. 

Will you be taking any additional measures to ensure Milashina’s safety?

I never publicly discuss matters of employee safety. 

Why do you think Kadyrov decided to link Novaya Gazeta to the Federal Security Service?

That’s a question for Kadyrov. He also linked us to Gazprom. I even wrote a letter to Mr. Miller [Gazprom’s CEO] today, asking when I could expect any charitable deposits. 

Based on what you know, would you say Kadyrov is secretly in conflict with this intelligence agency?

You’ll need to raise this question with Mr. Bortnikov [the director of the FSB] and Mr. Kadyrov. When it comes to the delicate relationship between the FSB’s leadership and Chechnya’s leadership or how these ties have developed or whether they are conflictual, particularly after the FSB found the people who killed Boris Nemtsov — when it comes to this, I’m totally in the dark.

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Interview by Irina Kravtsova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock