LISTEN RIGHT NOW to Digital Crossroads from October 17th.
The 30-minute show is dedicated to the memory of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was murdered two years ago on then-President Vladimir Putin’s birthday. A closed-door military trial for three suspects will begin in November. To learn more read two of her books available in English, Putin’s Russia and A Russian Diary. You could also start with two recent posts about Anna, in Global Voices and from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Digital Crossroads October 17, 2008
By Gavin Dahl
Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter who lived and died fighting for the truth, believed there to be a moral vacuum at the heart of Russia’s political system. She covered the most gruesome stories in her country for Novaya Gazeta, a small newspaper she co-founded with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev among others.
She was murdered in 2006 on former Russian president Vladimir Putin’s birthday, fueling speculation of his involvement. Much of her criticism in Putin’s Russia and A Russian Diary centers on the absence of official accountability for endless war in Chechnya, deaths of hostages at a Beslan school, blown up apartment buildings in Volgodonsk, the plight of conscripted soldiers, or the deadly siege on terrorists and innocent hostages at a production of a musical in Dubrovka.
Now, two years later, Digital Crossroads examines Putin’s Russia and remembers Anna.
There is a difference that sets Vladimir Putin apart from other G8 leaders. He is the most statistically popular leader alive today. Putin has achieved hegemonic stability through censorship, political corruption, extrajudicial violence, selective justice and royalties from oil and gas. A retired teacher in the crowd of 200 at a rain-soaked vigil in Moscow, October 7th, marking the 2-year anniversary of Anna’s murder, told the Washington Post she doubted the killer would ever be punished. “Not under Putin’s regime,” she said.
Anna’s stories of abductions, bombings, executions, torture, rape, arson, censorship, corruption and the sanction by Russia’s most powerful state authorities offer grim and awful images of what Russia is really like today. A victim of state torture with a knife lodged in the side of his head. A list of forty names of those abducted in the first months of 2004, assembled by families, rejected by procurators. Dead children mourned with no investigation. Families ridiculed by officials for searching for clues.
Anna implored Russians to look past government-spun information masquerading as news, and left behind a legacy of courage. When she was murdered at her apartment complex at the age of 48, the killers left behind a Makarov pistol. The job was most certainly a hit, sending out shockwaves felt worldwide by advocates of press freedom, killing a reporter involves less risk in Putin’s Russia than reporting on killers.
Since Putin came to near-absolute power in 2000, the country has seen more than a dozen unsolved murders of journalists. The New York Times and London Review of Books have published unequivocal statements about the lack of indignation and continued support for Putin, the former head of the KGB. Press Freedom groups including The Committee to Protect Journalists, The International Federation of Journalists and Global Voices at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center For Internet and Society agree.
May 24, 2007 in an editorial titled, “Killing the Russian Media,” the Times states, “Polls show President Putin’s popularity has soared. No wonder. Fewer and fewer Russians can see or hear from anyone who opposes him, his policies or his government.” The era of glasnost seems further than twenty years removed, as today the definition of extremism has been expanded to include media criticism of state officials.
January 25, 2007 London Review of Books published an article titled, “Russia’s Managed Democracy” asserting, “Putin’s control of the media is becoming more and more comprehensive. The methodical construction of a personalized authoritarian regime with a strong domestic base is well under way.” This is not hyperbole. Anna writes in A Russian Diary about a deputy Editor-in-Chief of one of the two newspapers published in Ingushetia. According to her colleague, “every column of the newspapers is read personally at proof stage by Issa Merzhoev.” The president’s press secretary removes anything he considers harmful to stabilization. “That is the law.”
After Anna’s murder, Alexei Venediktov, Editor-in-Chief of Echo of Moscow, told Salon.com in an interview published October 13, 2006 he had already overheard their radio reporters saying they should steer clear of coverage on Chechnya because they would be constantly looking over their shoulders. “There is almost no investigative journalism left in Russia,” he said. Because of what happened to Anna, “many of my colleagues will be afraid when entering their houses.”
Outlined at the start of the section of A Russian Diary she calls Russia’s Great Political Depression, Anna’s story reveals her colleagues’ fears of being fired if they attempt to publish anything about extrajudicial executions, now officially described by the procurator’s office as targeted force necessary in the struggle against terrorism. “In Ingushetia fear now fetters everybody… like a dragon that looks down on everybody from above,” she writes. “Concealing the problem can only make it worse.”
February 7, 2004 Putin’s reelection opponent, presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin disappeared. Anna addresses the most intriguing story from her chapter on the façade of democracy in Russia with dark humor, “a bit of excitement in the election at last.” Five days earlier Rybkin had criticized Putin in very harsh terms.
Anna’s next entry in A Russian Diary, February 9, finds Rybkin still missing. Oddly, a Federal Security Bureau colonel Gennadii Gudkov, then the deputy chairman of the Duma security committee, stated publicly that Rybkin was safe. Insisting her husband was kidnapped, Albina Niklaevna was convinced he ought not to have criticized Putin. By the following day, Rybkin was “found.”
Anna allows herself some harsh sweeping commentary, writing, “We are not talking here about orders, needless to say. Our top cats have only to raise an eyebrow, hinting at their august displeasure, for their serfs to rush immediately to carry out their wishes.” Putin may not have uttered a word.
Then February 12, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB/FSB officer granted political asylum in London, suggested that a psychotropic substance called SP117 might have been used on Rybkin. Litvinenko himself would die in November 2006, just weeks after Anna Politkovskaya, from polonium-210 poisoning. The truth drug believed to have been at play during Rybkin’s absence from the presidential race operates on specific parts of the brain in order to prevent an individual from having full possession of his mind. Anna writes, “He will tell everything he knows.” This same day, Putin made public his sobering refusal to participate in televised debates.
The next day, Ivan Rybkin announced he would not be returning from London. According to Anna, nobody has any doubt that the regime drugged him. A call to the offices of Novaya Gazeta warned, “if Rybkin should produce any compromising material against Putin in television debates, another terrorist act (will) follow. The president will have to distract the attention of the public somehow.” The paper did pass the message on to London, but Rybkin had already decided to withdraw from the race. Fear gripped him. “A defecting presidential candidate is a first in our history,” Anna writes.
Russians know the fear fueling political depression too well, but in many cases they don’t know the whole story. Events surrounding the assault on the Dubrovka theater production of Nord-Ost in 2002 are murky at best. Various investigations continued with unsatisfying results until June 1, 2007 when Echo of Moscow, the last remaining independent radio station in Russia, reported the investigation was closed indefinitely.
In A Russian Diary Anna accompanies relatives of the Nord-Ost victims to a meeting at the procurator general’s office in Moscow. The investigator greets them without a trace of sympathy, “Passports on the table! Nord-Ost Association? Who has recognized this organization?”
At issue for the families are several major discrepancies between the official story and the facts from the day of the assault. It is believed that many of the Chechen rebels were murdered despite being incapacitated by gas. Attacking soldiers may have shot hostages. Many of the belongings of hostages were looted by the military. Authorities failed to provide adequate medical support to hundreds of survivors, many of who were carried out and left in the rain and snow outside for hours. Tatyana Karpova, chairperson of the Nord-Ost association, and mother of one of the hostages who died, asked about Gennadii Vlakh, whose body was cremated as if he were one of the terrorists. The official responds, “That is none of your business.” She asks, “Has anybody been charged in connection with this affair?” “No,” he replies.
The mysterious gas used by the Russian Federation remains unknown. Yet the procurator’s report explains, “There are no objective grounds to suppose that the use of a gaseous chemical substance or substances might have been the sole cause of death.” Anna points out, too, that it was officially declared a major achievement of the operation that the terrorists all lost consciousness. Yet thirty terrorists were gunned down. Were they returning fire while unconscious? Did FSB agents shoot them, systematically, in their sleep?
What about the alleged military dummy grenades worn by the female militants? The story offered by Alexander Litvinenko was that two of the Chechens were working for the FSB, and that the agency manipulated the rebels into staging the attack. Did these two agent provocateurs (code name Abu Bakr and Abdul the Bloody) indeed escape? Anna does not insist in her book that any one version of the story is the real one. What she does is shed light on the treatment of the families by authorities wanting the story to go away.
Of all the stories that will not go away, Chechnya is most devastating.
Anna points out regarding the war in Chechnya reporters may write only about the killing of fighters and the “voluntary resettlement of refugees.” She concludes the death squads are completely taboo, as is all extrajudicial activity. Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov assumed Anna would sweeten the story of her hallucinatory adventure to his headquarters August 29, 2004. Instead, she printed the exchange exactly as it occurred. She describes the security service he captains as illegal, while provided with federal armaments. Kadyrov and his men, in the business of robbery and extortion, torture prisoners like gangsters.
In A Russian Diary Anna tells of risking her life and traveling to Tsentoroy, where Kadyrov agreed to meet her inside his fortress. He quickly admits to ordering two murders, or “exterminations” that very day. Anna describes him laughing at inappropriate moments, scratching, wiggling, shouting and jumping up and down in his chair. She challenges his right to kill anyone, when formally his men are the security service of the president of Chechnya. He boasts, “We have every right. We carried out this operation jointly with the FSB. We have all the necessary official permissions.” Anna insists he could not legally have two accused Chechen rebels apprehended and killed.
Two days prior to the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, returning home to her Moscow apartment with groceries, she gave her final interview. Broadcast across Russia on US State Department-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the interview offered Anna access to a large potential audience. She stated resolutely that two photographs were sitting on her desk. Her investigation into torture in Kadyrov’s prisons led her to insist his behavior could not be reduced to individual cases because of the enormous number of dead and disappeared. She stated without hesitation, “Kadyrov is a Stalin of our times.”
Beyond the assumption by much of the Western press that Kadyrov ordered the hit or Putin merely raised an eyebrow, there have been half a dozen other theories circulated about her murder. Her murder might be explained as revenge by crooked police or military officers identified by her sensationalist reporting, conspiracy by opponents of Putin or Kadyrov intent on discrediting them, revenge by Chechen militants written about in Novaya Gazeta or her books on the conflict, nationalism run amok, or corruption by oligarchs exposed in her articles.
There is little hope the Russian Federation will ever conduct a thorough investigation and almost zero chance her killer or his bosses will be brought to justice. It is fundamentally important to remember that Putin’s Russia is a place where journalists are being killed with impunity.
Appearing on camera with American president George W. Bush and German chancellor Andrea Merkel, Putin said of Anna’s murder, “Her political influence in Russia was extremely insignificant.” He added, “the murder does much more harm to Russia and Chechnya than any of her publications.” In one breath, Putin dismissed her work.
According to Reason Magazine no high-level government official attended Anna Politkovskaya’s funeral. The Moscow Times and International Herald Tribune reported that 1000 people gathered outside the cemetery in the rain during her memorial service. Soon after, police seized documents from Anna’s home and office, as well as her computer and the photographs she discussed in her last interview. Novaya Gazeta offered close to a million dollars in reward money for information, believing no investigation would follow Putin’s public promise to Bush and Merkel.
Kadyrov, who denies having anything to do with her killing because, “I don’t kill women,” has continued his rise, becoming president of Chechnya April 5, 2007.
Two years after Anna’s death Novaya Gazeta Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov told The Eurasia Daily Monitor he believes now that the murder case has been deliberately undermined. “I think this is the first case in the history of domestic criminalistics that a list of suspects has been talked about so loudly, not even by the Prosecutor General’s Office, but by a court.”
Two Chechen brothers are charged with conducting surveillance on Anna Politkovskaya and a former police officer is accused of providing technical help. Times Online reported October 16, the man suspected of shooting her is their brother, but he remains on the run. Investigators believe somebody ordered the killing, though they have not yet named a suspect. Lawyers for the defendants and Anna want the trial in November to be held in public, but prosecutors are pressing for a closed court, because of classified documents.
As Putin has stated publicly, in Russia, “all debates are useless.” If you are not in support of Putin, you are a terrorist. If your awards include the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism, the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award, the Reporters Without Borders Media Laureate Prize, the Civil Courage Prize and many others, you are insignificant.
If you are the Russian Union of Journalists you can be evicted. If you interview the widow of a murdered Chechen rebel, you will be fired from your television show. And finally if your newspaper publishes the reports of a murdered journalist, even after the shockwaves of her death have been felt across the globe, you can expect to have your office raided, twice.
Sources available upon request. To read the New Yorker article about Echo of Moscow, CLICK HERE.
Freedom Not Fear-
October 11th was an International Action Day called “Freedom Not Fear, Stop the Surveillance mania!” The Freedom Not Fear website reads, “Governments and businesses register, monitor and control our behavior ever more thoroughly. No matter what we do, who we phone and talk to, where we go, whom we are friends with, what our interests are, which groups we participate in “Big Brother” government and “Little Brothers” in business know it more and more thoroughly. The resulting lack of privacy and confidentiality is putting at risk the freedom of confession, the freedom of speech as well as the work of doctors, helplines, lawyers and journalists.”
The statement on the Freedom Not Fear website continues, “The agenda of security sector reform encompasses the convergence of police, intelligence agencies and the military, threatening to melt down the division and balance of powers. Using methods of mass surveillance, the border-less cooperation of the military, intelligence services and police authorities is leading toward the construction of “Fortresses” in Europe and on other continents, directed against refugees and different-looking people but also affecting, for example, political activists, the poor and under-privileged, and even sports fans.”
“We believe the respect for our privacy to be an important part of our human dignity. A free and open society cannot exist without unconditionally private spaces and communications.”
Credit cards can’t buy you love, at Wal-Mart-
Three guys go into a Wal-Mart, have you heard this one? Three guys go into a Wal-Mart with forged credit cards and stolen credit card numbers and buy a laptop. Except somehow Wal-Mart scammed them, selling an empty laptop box. They didn’t figure it out until after they left, but they showed back up to complain and Wal-Mart assumed they were scammers, not because of the credit cards but because the empty box claim sounded preposterous. Wal-Mart called the police, and as one guy attempted to run, he dropped a bunch of stolen credit cards. Of course, about the empty box the guys were telling the truth. But if you were buying merchandise with forged credit cards, would you go back to the scene of the crime to complain?
I also just found two other great blogs about Anna Politkovskaya this weekend: