Wed, Oct 11, 2006 - Page 9 News List

A murder in Moscow

As in the heyday of the Soviet Union, those that rock the boat today face exile, imprisonment or the grave. While Russia now has a facade of rule of law, the sad truth is that the same arbitrary brutes rule

By Nina Khrushcheva

It is time to end the fiction that Russian President Vladimir Putin's "dictatorship of law" has made post-communist Russia any less lawless. The murder of Anna Politkovskaya, one of Russia's bravest and best journalists, a woman who dared to expose the brutal murders committed by Russian troops in Chechnya, gives final proof that Putin has delivered nothing more than a run-of-the-mill dictatorship with the usual contempt for law.

This recognition is a timely one for the world to arrive at, particularly for Europe. Germany's Foreign Ministry is preparing a policy on Russian/German relations that will enshrine official indifference to Putin's lawlessness as being in the national interest of the most powerful member of the European Union.

But indifference becomes appeasement when it encourages Putin to pursue his lawless ways in the international arena, as in his current campaign to strangle Georgia's economy.

The killing of Politkovskaya has given rise to an eerie sense of deja vu: just as in the KBG's heyday, people simply disappear in Putin's Russia. Politkovskaya's murder is the country's third killing with political overtones in three weeks. Enver Ziganshin, the chief engineer of BP Russia, was shot to death in Irkutsk on Sept. 30. Andrei Kozlov, the deputy governor of Russia's central bank who was leading a campaign against financial fraud, was assassinated on Sept. 14.

The fact that Russia's Prosecutor, General Yuri Chaika, took over the investigation into Politkovskaya's killing, as he did with the murder of Kozlov, doesn't inspire hope, as such senior-level involvement would in any real democracy. In fact, the involvement of the highest level of Russia's government is almost a guarantee that the killers will never be found.

The implications of Politkovskaya's murder look particularly grim in light of the fact that she was a powerful critic of Russia's president. In her articles for one of the few remaining independent papers in Moscow, Novaya Gazeta, and in her books Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy and A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya, Politkovskaya wrote of the vanishing freedoms that are the signature characteristic of Putin's presidency.

As shown by the exile of the former media tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinky and the imprisonment of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, three fates await Putin's enemies: exile, imprisonment or the grave.

I'm not accusing Putin's government of orchestrating the contract killing of Politkovskaya. After all, as a campaigning investigative journalist she made many people angry in addition to Putin, not least of which is Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, whom she accused of a policy of kidnapping for ransom.

But even if Putin's associates had nothing to do with Politkovskaya being gunned down in an elevator of her apartment building in the center of Moscow, his contempt for law created the climate in which the murder was carried out. Like the murder of archbishop Thomas Beckett in the Canterbury Cathedral many centuries ago, the crime was committed in the clear belief that it would please the king.

Given what Politkovskaya represented -- the responsibility of a democratic press to question the Kremlin and its policies -- the government should have made certain that nothing bad happened to her. Putin's Russia has already lost 12 leading journalists to murder in the past six years. None of those crimes has been solved, which would not be the case if Putin's "dictatorship of law" was anything more than a PR strategy.

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