The political assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya reveals Russia’s true state of affairs
0n Oct. 7, Putin’s birthday, Russian journalist and mother of two children Anna Politkovskaya was shot four times in the elevator of her building in Moscow in a political assassination. She had been planning to release a story the next day in one of the few remaining independent papers, Novaya Gazeta, outlining torture practices used by Chechen authorities, who function as Russia’s henchmen.
Politkovskaya received eight international awards for her passionate work reporting on Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya, including the Prize of the Russian Union of Journalists as well as the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Recognition.
At a time when the West was fawning over Putin, Politkovskaya was quick to point out the truth in her book Putin’s Russia, in which she outlined the systematic eradication of opposition that Putin was and is organizing. In 2001, she fled to Vienna to escape retribution from Sergei Lapin, a police officer whom she accused of atrocities. Though he was arrested a year later, the case against Lapin was — in typical Russian fashion — closed the following year. In 2005 Lapin was again caught, and this time jailed for torture, as a result of his exposure by Politkovskaya in the article “The Disappearing People.”
Politkovskaya received constant death threats regarding her activities, and survived one attempt at poisoning on her flight to intercede in the Beslan school siege in 2004. Though her style bothered many people, her stories always stood firm.
Instead of swiftly condemning the incident, it took President Putin three days to react to the killing. Putin claimed that Politkovskaya’s influence was only “very minor” and then went on to lie in stating that the killing was not political. He did call it shocking, stating that her killers must be brought to justice. In true form, Putin noted that her killing hurt his reputation more than all previous negative criticism combined. In this, at least, Putin was right.
As the son of the founder of the Czechoslovak desk of Radio Free Europe and the publisher of The New Presence magazine, which seeks to promote democracy via independent free speech, I, like many others, am drawn to this event, which, more than any other in recent times, clearly denotes the state of Russia today. In stark contrast to international reaction from people such as Mikhail Gorbachev, who stated that the murder was a “grave crime against the country, against all of us [Russians],” the all-too-familiar and predictable Putin machine is already gearing up.
Russian journalist Alexander Mayorov says that the murder is disadvantageous for the Russian authorities in that Western media will use it as an opportunity to blame Moscow for the current state of affairs. Yes, Mr. Mayorov, you are right. We are all following the decline of Russia under Putin, a decline that is taking place in a country that has never in its entire history known democracy.
Human rights abuses are not confined to Russia. Critics point to U.S. abuses in Guantánamo and Iraq. But there is a difference. In the United States and other countries, human rights abuses, though they do take place, are being openly discussed and challenged, without fear of retribution, and the powers that be are politically liable. The upcoming U.S. Senate and Congress elections will prove this.
In Russia, the opposition has been systematically choked or shut down entirely. That shutting down includes four bullets into Politkovskaya. It is high time that Europe and the West start dealing with Russia not as a strategic partner but as a strategic enemy. If Russia, and not the United States, were the lone superpower, the Russian flag and not the Czech flag would be waving over Prague again.
The best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. The return of the Soviet system with the consolidation of Putin’s power is obvious. Politkovskaya’s death is just the latest in a long series of Russian contract killings, which include “uncomfortable” bank heads Andrei Kozlov and Alexander Slesarev, as well as other journalists including the U.S. editor of Forbes’ Russian edition, Paul Klebnikov. The bringing of the real (and not Putin-manufactured “terrorist” or “extremist”) killers of Politkovskaya to justice should be put before Putin as the litmus test of future relations with Russia.
“Under President Putin, we won’t be able to forge democracy in Russia and will only turn back to the past. … I have no hope in my soul; only a change in leadership would allow me hope,” wrote Politkovskaya. The morning after her killing, Putin’s police seized her computer hard disc and personal materials. Two photographs of suspected Russian torturers disappeared. The truth may never be known.
Until her killers, and those who sent them, including Putin’s cronies, are sitting behind bars, Russia should be regarded as a rogue state. If Russia wants to be treated as a partner, it has to behave as one, with the attendant responsibilities.
This is what Anna Politkovskaya wanted; this is what she died for.
The author is a physician and publisher of The New Presence.