The Caucasian Circle of Violence

The assassination of a Chechen government critic in Vienna has unleashed a wave of political indignation. Once more. Will anything happen? Probably not.

Vienna has a long and inglorious tradition of hosting political assassinations. In July 1989 three leading Iranian Kurds in exile were gunned down at a meeting with delegates of the Iranian government in a private apartment in the 3rd District.  The suspects took refuge in their embassy, but were later driven to the airport under police escort, where they boarded the next flight to Teheran (probably Business Class).  Apparently the Iranian ambassador had suggested that Austrians living in Iran could be endangered if the incident was not resolved tidily.

In July 1996 a Georgian oligarch was shot in a pleasant little alley right off the busy Kärntner Strasse. What at first looked like a political execution turned out to be “merely” a mafia revenge killing. “Less spectacular than expected … the perp had a personal motive,” reported Der Standard drily. In December 2018 just a few minutes away another hit man took down a Serbian-Montenegran mobster as he emerged from Vienna’s Schnitzel temple Figlmüller. “The killer waited till they had finished their meal” commented the daily Heute.  The murders all provoked a short-lived flurry of official indignation, and then silence.  After all, they were foreigners.

Revenge Is Mine, Saith Ramsan

The latest high profile killing, clearly a political assassination, puts Vienna back on the map. “The Guardian and the Washington Post are carrying special reports from Austria,” posted the daily Kurier proudly.  The New York Times was also prompt, with an angle that fits election year politics at home: “Chechen exiles are being hunted down. Often, the trail leads back to Russia.” This murder does indeed appear to trace directly to Ramsan Kadyrow, President of the Russian Federal State of Chechnya and loyal vassal of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The 43-year-old victim, Mamikhan Umarov, was a Chechen in exile and a vocal critic of strongman Kadyrow. He had recently been offered and refused special police protection by the Austrian authorities, and he had changed his name from Mamikhan U to “Martin B”. [Austrian media traditions do not permit printing the full names of alleged criminals.] He apparently had asked a friend to get him a bullet-proof vest – but not in time. Saturday evening July 5, Umarov was shot and killed outside a shopping center in Gerasdorf on the edge of Vienna.  A police helicopter shadowed the fleeing assassin’s vehicle, and he was arrested two hours later in Linz. Unsurprisingly, he has refused to cooperate with the police. Loyalty is everything where he comes from, and anything else, life threatening.

No Lily-White Social Warrior

President Kadyrow, a bear of a man with a vigorous beard and perpetual smile, is a good friend of Putin.  Like his powerful protector he also has a well-earned reputation for pursuing his critics in exile. In January 2009, Umar Israilov, a former bodyguard and later critic of Kadyrow’s, was gunned down outside a supermarket in Vienna Florisdorf. The killers were never caught. 

But although Kadyrov runs an undeniably brutal regime in Grosny, the tempting good guy / bad guy template does not always fit. The murdered Umarov himself was no lily-white social warrior. He had an extensive criminal record and had spent time in jail for human trafficking.  In an interview with the Ukrainian on-line channel Swobodnij, he freely admitted that he had himself recruited hitmen to eliminate other anti-Kadyrow voices. As Die Presse reported, he also claimed to have been part of a plan to eliminate several pro-Ukrainian (means anti-Russian) Chechen fighters. Confusingly he added, that he had only pretended to go along with the plot in order to foil it. Even more confusingly he claimed, that Austrian authorities were kept fully informed.  In this particular Caucasian circle, the truth is seldom simple.

Proxy Warfare

There are around 30,000 Chechens living in Austria, many in the second or third generation and now Austrian citizens, whose first language is German. But like many immigrant communities in exile, the traditional solidarity is under pressure. Most Chechen immigrants came to escape the brutal fighting back home, but they are divided on the Kadyrow regime in Grosny.  There are those who support his heavy-handed authoritarianism and those who oppose it. And there are those – probably the majority – who oppose Kadyrov, but are too afraid to say so. 

Older Chechens regret the loss of the old country’s values, younger ones resent being stigmatized as a violence-prone social problem. As Florian Kreiner, lawyer and confidante of the community, told Heute, the traditional concept of “honor” is still powerful, embedded in a strict Islamic codex. Young men are brought up to protect themselves and their families against any slights, real or imagined. “Violence is often the only way to survive,” Kreiner told the paper. 

The numbers tell a sad story: According to the Austrian Integration Fond (OIF) over a third of all younger Chechen are now unemployed, over two thirds have never had a permanent job. In 2018, three thousand criminal charges were brought against Chechens, mainly knife or gun crimes or drugs.  This is statistically 10% of the community (almost certainly it is a much small number of individuals on multiple charges). However it compares to around 1.0% for the general population, so it is numbers like these that feed the popular perception that Austria is importing a parallel society of Caucasian violence – and that certainly fuels political agendas in an election year. 

Karl Nehammer, Interior Minister and the conservative ÖVP’s pit bull in residence, was quick to surf the wave: “What we don’t need” he told any media listening, “is foreign conflicts being fought out in our country.”  As the wise man (Democrat Speaker of the House from 1977-1987, Tip O’Neill) once said: In the end, all politics is local.

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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