At approximately midnight on Feb. 5, just as the Russian winter was finally starting to bite, Gilani Shepiyev, the former deputy mayor of Grozny in Chechnya, was returning to his home in western Moscow. Shepiyev did not make it. He was found less than a foot away from the wood-paneled door to his apartment block. Blood from three gunshot wounds stained the dirty snow on the pavement; the weapon, a Baikal pistol, lay discarded next to him. Typical signs of a contract killing. Shepiyev had survived one assassination attempt in Grozny in 2006. This time he was not so lucky.
Three hours before he died, Shepiyev's bodyguard was killed. And in a separate case, but on the same day, Georgian businessman Kakha Kalandarishvili was gunned down when walking his dog in northwestern Moscow. Russian news agencies reported that the dog would not let police near the body for two hours. (See pictures of Putin's patriotic youth camp.)
The three deaths are just a sample of what has been one of Moscow's most violent periods, reminiscent of the notorious 1990s. Just three weeks before Shepiyev's death, human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova were murdered in central Moscow. In December, a worker from Tajikistan was beheaded in the capital region. Moscow's chief prosecutor, Yuri Syomin, announced on Feb. 16 that murders had gone up 16% and fatal attacks 44% in recent months.
Some of the murders appear to be politically motivated. Three senior Chechen officials have been slain in Moscow in the past three years, and other figures opposed to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's regime have also been targets. The murder of opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya is linked to her criticism of the Kremlin-backed Kadyrov, whose government is accused of torturing thousands of individuals. In September 2008, Ruslan Yamadayev, the brother of Sulim Yamadayev, rumored to be a rival of Kadyrov, was gunned down outside the British embassy in Moscow at peak hour. (On Jan. 13, Umar Israilov, a former bodyguard of Kadyrov's, was killed on the streets of Vienna, where he had obtained asylum.) "I don't know who is behind these crimes or why blood has been spilt," Kadyrov told the newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta in February.
Alexei Malashenko, a scholar in residence at Moscow's Carnegie Institute, warns against making any kind of political link even though "a lot of people have died, and those people were Kadyrov's opponents." He says, "Kadyrov has made it clear on several occasions that he is not responsible, and maybe directly he isn't, but his supporters do have his interests at heart." Some of the crimes appear to be examples of the Caucasus' tradition of blood revenge, where a relative of an enemy is as much a target as the enemy himself a tradition that may have been brought over to Moscow by the Chechen diaspora. "You have to understand that Chechnya is Chechnya it has had so many wars in the last decade," says Malashenko. "They have forgotten how to resolve things by law. All they know is violence."
But Chechen feuds may be only one factor in Moscow's rash of murders. The killing of the Tajik worker, for example, has many fearing the start of a wave of racially motivated killings. Moscow chief prosecutor Syomin has said that the financial crisis may also be a contributing factor, with jobless locals taking out their frustrations on migrants. But Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy director of the Sova Center, which monitors racially motivated crimes, argues that the rise in unemployment has nothing to do with the death of 14 Central Asian migrant workers in Russia in January. "The number of deaths is lower than the same time last year," she points out. Instead, she says, the financial crisis "is just an excuse for neo-Nazi groups to kill immigrants." She points out that another wave of killings of Central Asian workers began well before the financial crisis hit, in the latter part of 2008. "Early last year, we were getting reports of Central Asian workers killed, almost daily."
Those who work at the Sova Center have themselves been getting threats since they started drawing attention to the problem of violence against Central Asians. "I have received so many e-mails, especially in June of last year. But now I am very worried," admits Kozhevnikova. On Feb. 8, just before a conference on violence in Moscow, Kozhevnikova received an anonymous e-mail from a neo-Nazi group. "It said that for them, it would be more effective to kill people like me, or to kill journalists, than it is to kill immigrants. They said that they might kill me at the conference." She still attended. But, she says, "I am very cautious."