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One year on, another victim of Putin’s Russia October 7, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Freedom of speech, media, Media and Journalism, Russia.

World by storm had an interesting post last week about the possibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin becoming Russian Prime Minister. In the course of commentary on the article, Eagle referred to the deaths of journalists in Russia over the last few years. There have also been numerous and well substantiated recent reports about the use of mental facilities for the detention of political opponents and dissidents.

Appropriate so that today is the first anniversary of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, journalist with Novaya Gazeta, whose courageous reporting of the war in Chechnya depicting the suffering of the innocents at the hands of Russian and Chechen forces, was often a lone voice in the heavily censored and restricted Russian media. She was also a harsh critic of Putin, chiefly for his role in pushing Russia into a second, and far more brutal, war in Chechnya, but also for his contempt for civil liberties and personal freedoms. In it she warned:

“We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance. All we have left is the internet, where information is freely available. For the rest, if you want to go on working as a journalist, it’s total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison or trial – whatever our special services, Putin’s guard dogs, see fit.”


It was her reporting from Chechnya that most affected me however. The interviews with terrified Russian conscripts. With a seemingly endless stream of refugees in the camps around Chechnya’s borders whose names she scrupulously noted to ensure they were not forgotten. The macabre attempts to identify the bodies of Russian soldiers so that they could be buried, doomed to defeat by bureaucracy, petty corruption and greed. Her efforts, and those of her publication, to successfully evacuate an old folks home from the middle of Grozny that had been callously abandoned by both sides. The images of a battered Grozny, with children scavenging for food in the courtyards of apartments whose rubble piles still held their neighbours.

Despite threats, beatings, a mock execution at the hands of Russian forces and one previous murder attempt, she persisted in her work until she was shot to death in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow on October 7th of last year. Putin’s birthday coincidentally enough.

Some people have accused Putin’s intelligence services of having carried out her execution. A great deal of initial speculation centred on Russian backed Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, a frequent target of Politkovskaya’s work whom she had described as Chechnya’s Stalin. She was working on an exposé of his security forces when she was killed and many of her colleagues in journalism still believe that it was people close to Kadyrov who had her killed for her work in exposing their corruption.

Putin’s investigators have blamed ‘outside forces’ who sought by killing her to destabilise the state and embarrass Putin. At the end of August they arrested a number of people including Chechen organised crime figures and former FSB agents and, curiously, leaked massed of information about them to the media.

As Dmitri Muatov, editor of Politkovskaya’s paper, said:

“The case of Anna Politkovskaya is falling apart; the intention is that it should come to nothing, to zero. This has been done by leaking information which should be kept secret. A couple of high-ranking people from different government structures, from the “siloviki” and special services, have leaked information about this case.

“They have distributed a list of the people detained. This is unprecedented. Why has this been done? Because there was an order to do it so that all the other participants in the case would be able to hide.

“All the photos and biographies, with police information about those detained, were published on the internet and in two tabloids.”

One year on, and no closer to justice.


1. Wednesday - October 8, 2007

Well, as I said in the other post, there were a lot more Politkovskayas in “Yeltsin’s Russia”. There shouldn’t be any of course but it seems somewhat disingenuous to me to point the finger at Putin for what is clearly a pre-existing cultural problem (and one which, in fairness, is to some degree less of a problem now than it was under the previous regime, largely because the gangsters that are responsible for most of the murders of journalists don’t have as much power and influence as they had under the previous regime).

While some of the international coverage of this crime has been vaguely ludicrous (Putin being accused of ordering the crime himself, which no one in Russia, Muratov included, seems to believe), hopefully the attention will at least force the authorities to show a little more concern with the prosecution of the case than has traditionally happened with murders of this sort. That remains to be seen. But given that there are now ten men in custody, and that Muratov himself has said that more time is needed to investigate the case, it seems a bit early to be ruling the possibility out.


2. Red Squirrel - October 8, 2007

^Agreed with the above. The western notion of “Putin’s” Russia being somehow a rollback of democracy and a regression from Yeltsin’s Russia is simply newspeak for “Russia is no longer doing as she’s told”. Remind again, when was the last time that Putin shelled parliament?


3. Donagh - October 8, 2007

I think you’re giving Putin an easy ride there. While I don’t think that Putin ordered it and that, as Frank Little pointed out, there are others who would have benefitted more from the death of Politkovskaya, it doesn’t follow that Putin is the best thing for Russian democracy. Putin’s reign and the notion of him standing again as President are a reflection of the Russian desire for a strong and charismatic leader maintaining power for a long time. There is no doubt that Putin is hugely popular in Russia, and on the lack of freedom in the press he asks ‘when has the press ever been free in Russia’ and I agree there has been much myth surrounding his tenure. More Russians are richer under Putin than when Yeltsin helped the oligarchs carve up the nations resources. But Putin was put in place as President by Yeltsin as directed by Berezovsky. So too will Putin choose who becomes President next time and also make sure that he doesn’t have to while away his retirement giving speeches at business functions. I quite liked this article: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/satarov2


4. franklittle - October 8, 2007

“The western notion of “Putin’s” Russia being somehow a rollback of democracy and a regression from Yeltsin’s Russia is simply newspeak for “Russia is no longer doing as she’s told”.”

Interesting. He’s putting it up to the West, therefore the allegations made against him are a product of that.

I take a slightly different line. The argument that Putin’s not as bad as Yeltsin is an interesting one and if I’d the time I’d happily go round the houses on it and no doubt learn a lot on the way.

I am not pretending Russia was some sort of liberal democracy before Putin. Nor that there is no cultural and political legacy from decades of Stalinism.

But the argument that Putin has begun, or has continued from the Yeltsin era in which he was involved, a rollback of personal and political liberties is not some Western propaganda myth but an analysis and an argument made by many human rights organisations within and without Russia.


5. WorldbyStorm - October 8, 2007

Again, to me it is the centralisation of power which is key. Either that’s right or it’s wrong in a polity. I think it’s wrong while recognising the good in him. Everything else becomes collateral damage in that process.


6. Wednesday - October 9, 2007

it doesn’t follow that Putin is the best thing for Russian democracy

Nobody, but nobody, suggested that. Nobody.

the notion of him standing again as President

… is one that has been floated by his opponents, not by him. When he was asked about it last week his reply was “I’ve already said I’m leaving – what is it with you?” Somehow this didn’t get as much coverage in the West though as his reply to someone else’s suggestion that he might become Prime Minister.

The argument that Putin’s not as bad as Yeltsin is an interesting one and if I’d the time I’d happily go round the houses on it and no doubt learn a lot on the way.

If you want some material on just how bad Yeltsin was, from a democratic standpoint or simply as a national leader, the book Russia after the Cold War (edited by Mike Bowker and Cameron Ross) has a lot of interesting essays. It was published toward the end of Yeltsin’s presidency, before anyone had even heard of Putin. Or check out Daragh McDowell (a p.ie denizen)’s opinion piece here (subs required) the accuracy of which has been confirmed by the Westerners I know who actually live in Russia.

In terms of the motivation of Putin’s critics, unquestionably there is a certain amount of “Russia is no longer doing as she’s told”, not from Cedar Loungers or leftists in general of course, but I do believe that underlies a lot of what gets into the mainstream press and subtly influences all of our thinking about the country. On another level I think there is just a lack of understanding of Russian political culture as well as some highly unrealistic expectations. People want Putin to create a democratic, orderly Russia where none has ever existed before, and to do so without overcentralisation and with no negative impact on civil liberties. I’m not sure anybody could do that and after the chaos of the Yeltsin years it’s not entirely difficult to understand why Putin, and the Russian people in general, have decided to prioritise the way they have.


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