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Human Rights

August 13, 2009

Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly condemned the murder of aid workers in Chechnya during her talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The latest killing was expected to overshadow talks on other bilateral issues.

Angela Merkel and Dmitry Medvedev at a joint press conference
Merkel and Medvedev had some serious talking to do on FridayImage: AP

Head of the Let's Save the Generation children's charity Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband Alik Djibralov were found dead on Tuesday following their abduction by armed men the day before. They had been shot and their bodies dumped in the trunk of a car in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

The case, like the alarming number which precede it, has drawn statements of condemnation from all quarters. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was "shocked" by the murders and denounced what he described as an "act of cowardice."

He called for a quick investigation to serve justice on both the killers and the masterminds behind the assassination.

Human rights campaigner, Natalya Estemirova
Human rights campaigner Natalya Estemirova was murdered in JulyImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Yet just how likely it is that that will ever happen remains to be seen. Following the July murder of Natalya Estemirova, an activist who worked for Russia's Memorial rights group, Medvedev assured the German government that everything possible would be done to get to the bottom of the crime.

Peter Franck, a Russia expert for the German arm of Amnesty International, says he doesn't hold out much hope that Moscow will make good on its pledge.

"Over the years we have witnessed the murder of our colleagues in Russia, but only very few of the cases are ever solved and never those in the north Caucasus."

The wrong signal

And that is a critical mistake. Not only because it ignores justice and the pain of victims' relatives, but because it is a missed opportunity to send out the signal that perpetrators will be made to account for their crimes.

"Currently we have a situation in which it seems that investigations are called off when the people conducting them feel that to continue would put their own lives at risk," Franck told Deutsche Welle. "That is a climate we need to change."

President Dmitry Medvedev
President Medvedev is making different noisesImage: AP

And although securing such change will take a long time, Franck says there are some small signs that President Medvedev is at least thinking in the right direction.

"He didn't only churn out standard phrases in the wake of Estemirova's murder, he also praised the work of human rights activists," Franck said, adding that Amnesty had welcomed the shift in rhetoric.

Talking the talk

There is no doubt that Medvedev wants his Russia to be a major player on the world stage and equally no doubt that relations between Moscow and Berlin are becoming increasingly important to both countries.

So how does the spate of murders for which nobody has claimed responsibility but which many blame on the Chechen authorities, affect bilateral ties?

Henning Schroeder, Head of the Russian/CIS Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs says there is no correlation between the two.

Zarema Sadullayeva
Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband were found dead on TuesdayImage: picture alliance/dpa

"Western states have no influence on Russian domestic issues," he said, adding that Angela Merkel would merely have gone through the motions in her talks with Medvedev in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday, outlining what her position, her electorate and the media expect of her, but nothing more.

"I'm sorry to have to say this, but it's all staged," Schroeder said.

Soft diplomacy vs. outright criticism

But professor for political science at Berlin's Free University, Klaus Segbers, says given the fact that there is no hard evidence about who is behind the recent murders in Chechnya, there is little Merkel could have achieved in her meeting but condemn them.

He believes the way to encourage Russia to better protect its citizens is through soft diplomacy, something which he says is already happening. "Western representatives should use official meetings and higher level political meetings to show Russia that these reports have a bad effect on its reputation."

War-ravaged buildings in the Chechen capital, Grozny
Ravaged by two wars, the streets of Grozny are far from safeImage: dpa

Segbers says Russia doesn't seem to have grasped the idea that good behavior is in its own interests. But he believes foreign investors could play a decisive - albeit inadvertent - role in helping to make Russia a safer place. "If they start to feel the problems they become hesitant to do business there," he told Deutsche Welle.

But soft diplomacy and investor jitters are not enough to reassure Russian and Chechen journalists and activists that they are out of harm's way. Neither is it enough for Peter Franck, who says it is time for the West to stop mumbling and send a clearly worded message to Moscow.

"There has been too little solidarity with the victims," he said. "It is time to speak loud and clear, to call what is happening by its name: a scandal."

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge