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Who's killing Putin's enemies?

London Observer | February 25, 2007

Vladimir Putin has presided over a staggering economic boom in the six years since he took control of the Kremlin. Meanwhile, a dozen of his critics have been assassinated and the country's vast natural resources are in the pockets of a chosen few. Michael Specter reports on the corruption and gangsterism gripping Russia.
Read part II here

Saturday 7 October was a marathon of disheartening tasks for Anna Politkovskaya. Two weeks earlier her father, a retired diplomat, had died of a heart attack as he emerged from the Moscow metro while on his way to visit Politkovskaya's mother, Raisa Mazepa, in hospital. She had just been diagnosed with cancer and was too weak even to attend her husband's funeral. 'Your father will forgive me, because he knows I have always loved him,' she told Anna and her sister, Elena Kudimova, the day he was buried. A week later she underwent surgery, and since then Anna and Elena had been taking turns helping her cope with her grief.

Politkovskaya was supposed to spend the day at the hospital, but her 26-year-old daughter, who was pregnant, had just moved into her flat, on Lesnaya Street, while her own place was being prepared for the baby. 'Anna had so much on her mind,' Elena Kudimova told me when we met in London, before Christmas. 'And she was trying to finish her article.'
Politkovskaya was a special correspondent for the small, liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and, like most of her work, the piece focused on the terror that pervades the southern republic of Chechnya. This time, she had been trying to document repeated acts of torture carried out by squads loyal to the pro-Russian prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov. In the past seven years Politkovskaya had written dozens of accounts of life during wartime; many had been collected in her book A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya. Politkovskaya was far more likely to spend time in a hospital than on a battlefield, and her writing bore frequent witness to robbery, rape and the unbridled cruelty of life in a place few other Russians - and almost no other reporters - cared to think about.

One day, at the Ninth Municipal Hospital in Grozny, the Chechen capital, Politkovskaya encountered a 62-year-old woman named Aishat Suleimanova whose eyes expressed 'complete indifference to the world', as she wrote in a typical piece. 'And it is beyond one's strength to look at her naked body. She has been disembowelled like a chicken. The surgeons have cut into her from above her chest to her groin.' Two weeks earlier, a 'young fellow in a Russian serviceman's uniform put Aishat on a bed in her own house and shot five 5.45mm bullets into her. These bullets, weighted at the edges, have been forbidden by all international conventions as inhumane.'

In the west, Politkovskaya's honesty brought her a measure of fame and a string of awards, bestowed at ceremonies in hotel ballrooms from New York to Stockholm. At home, she had none of that. Her excoriations of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, ensured isolation, harassment, and, many predicted, death. 'I am a pariah,' she wrote in an essay last year. 'That is the result of my journalism through the years of the second Chechen war, and of publishing books abroad about life in Russia.'

Despite the fact that Politkovskaya was articulate, attractive and accomplished, she was barred from appearing on television, which is the only way the vast majority of Russians get news. To the degree that a living woman could be airbrushed out of post-Soviet history, she had been. 'People call the newspaper,' she wrote, 'and send letters with one and the same question: "Why are you writing about this? Why are you scaring us? Why do we need to know this?"' She provided an answer as much for herself as for any reader: 'I'm sure this has to be done, for one simple reason: as contemporaries of this war, we will be held responsible for it. The classic Soviet excuse of not being there and not taking part in anything personally won't work. So I want you to know the truth. Then you'll be free of cynicism.'

On the afternoon of 7 October Politkovskaya drove to a supermarket near her mother's flat on the Frunzenskaya Embankment. Her daughter had planned to meet her there but was delayed. Nonetheless, as a surveillance camera at the store later showed, Politkovskaya was not alone. A young woman and a tall, slender man whose face was obscured by a baseball cap lurked in the aisles as she shopped. When Politkovskaya finished she drove home in her silver Vaz 2110 and parked a few feet from the entrance to her building. She took the tiny elevator up to her flat on the seventh floor and dropped two bags of groceries at the door. Then she went down to fetch the rest of her parcels. When the elevator opened on the ground floor, her killer was waiting. He shot her four times - the first two bullets piercing her heart and lungs, the third shattering her shoulder, with a force that drove Politkovskaya back into the elevator. He then administered what is referred to in Moscow, where contract killings have become routine, as the kontrolnyi vystrel - the control shot. He fired a bullet into her head from inches away. Then he dropped his weapon, a plastic 9mm Makarov pistol whose serial number had been filed away, and slipped into the darkening afternoon.

'Anna knew the risks only too well,' her sister told me. Politkovskaya was born in New York in 1958 while her father was serving at the United Nations; not long ago her family persuaded her to obtain an American passport - 'but that was as far as she would go,' Kudimova said. 'We all begged her to stop. We begged. My parents. Her editors. Her children. But she always answered the same way: "How could I live with myself if I didn't write the truth?"'

Since 1999, when Vladimir Putin, a career KGB officer, was, in effect, anointed as president by Boris Yeltsin, 13 journalists have been murdered in Russia. Nearly all the deaths took place in strange circumstances, and none of them has been successfully investigated or prosecuted. In July 2003 the investigative reporter Yuri Shchekochikhin, a well-known colleague of Politkovskaya at Novaya Gazeta, died of what doctors described as an 'allergic reaction'. Shchekochikhin, who became famous in the Gorbachev era for his reports on the rise of a new mafia, had been investigating allegations of tax evasion against people with links to the FSB, the post-Soviet KGB. Nobody ever explained what Shchekochikhin was allergic to, and his family is convinced he was poisoned. On 9 July 2004 Paul Klebnikov, the founding editor of the Russian edition of Forbes - who had made powerful enemies by investigating corruption among Russian business tycoons - was shot dead as he left his Moscow office.

The attacks have not been limited to journalists. In September 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, a candidate for president of Ukraine, who helped lead the Orange Revolution and who was vigorously opposed by Putin, barely survived a poisoning. Doctors determined that he had been given the deadly chemical dioxin, which left his face disfigured and his health severely impaired. Since then two members of the duma, the Russian parliament, have been assassinated, and last September Andrei Kozlov, the deputy chief of Russia's central bank, was shot outside a Moscow stadium following a company football match. Kozlov had initiated a highly visible effort to rid the country of banks that were little more than fronts for organised crime. And just a few weeks ago, in an execution that could have been planned by Al Capone, Movladi Baisarov, a former Chechen special forces officer who had come to be seen by the prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov as a rival, was gunned down on Leninsky Prospekt, one of Moscow's busiest thoroughfares. A series of control shots were administered in front of scores of witnesses, including high-ranking members of the police force. No arrests have been made.

Four weeks after Politkovskaya died Alexander Litvinenko, a little-known former KGB agent who had been imprisoned by Putin and had then defected to England, fell gravely ill in London. Like many others, including Politkovskaya, Litvinenko had accused the Russian president of creating a pretext for the second Chechen war in 1999 by blowing up buildings in Moscow and then blaming Chechen separatists for the attacks. Putin's decisive response to those acts of terrorism propelled him toward immense and lasting popularity. He was outraged by Litvinenko's accusation and equally angered that Litvinenko had fallen into the orbit of Boris Berezovsky, one of Putin's most despised enemies. Berezovsky, a shady billionaire oligarch, wielded huge power in the Yeltsin years, helped bring Putin to Yeltsin's attention, and even played a major role in persuading him to assume the presidency. Once Putin took power, though, Berezovsky found himself shut off from the Kremlin; he accused Putin of turning his back on Yeltsin's reforms, and was driven from the country. Litvinenko subsequently charged that his FSB superiors had ordered him to kill Berezovsky. On his deathbed, he accused Putin of killing him; he also blamed Putin for Politkovskaya's death.

The manner of Litvinenko's poisoning was obscure almost until the moment he died. At first doctors thought he had an unusual bacterial infection; then they said that his symptoms pointed toward rat poison. When his immune system started to fail, they thought it more likely the poison was a radioactive form of thallium, which had been used by the KGB nearly 50 years earlier in a failed attempt to assassinate Nikolai Khokhlov, an agent who had refused to comply with an order to kill a prominent Russian dissident. Finally, just hours before Litvinenko died, the doctors provided a definitive and even more improbable diagnosis: he had been poisoned with polonium 210, a rare radioactive isotope; a millionth of a gram is enough to destroy a person's bodily organs. Litvinenko's murder was the first known case of nuclear terrorism perpetrated against an individual.

In Moscow, a city given to conspiracy theories, people could speak of little else: Putin had acted to silence a vocal traitor; no, Putin's enemies did it, to destroy the image of the Kremlin and gain leverage in the 2008 presidential campaign; Putin's allies did it, so that they could use the affair as a convenient excuse to ignore the constitution and secure him a third term; the 'Jews' did it, because Litvinenko had converted to Islam; Muslim extremists did it, because Litvinenko had reneged on a promise to supply parts for a dirty bomb; Berezovsky did it, to embarrass Putin. The Kremlin even suggested that Leonid Nevzlin, a wealthy oil executive who had fled Russia and lives in Israel, might have been involved. There was no proof for any of these assertions. Last July, however, the duma passed a law, introduced by the Kremlin, to permit the assassination of 'enemies of the Russian regime' abroad. For people like Boris Berezovsky, whose hatred for Putin has become an obsession, the new law explained everything.

'This guy is a KGB guy,' Berezovsky told me one afternoon over tea at a London hotel. 'This guy issues a law allowing the Russians to kill opponents abroad. So they kill opponents abroad.' His voice rose, and he shrugged, and then he glanced at me as if to say, how could one draw any other conclusion? 'This is absolutely logical. Why did they issue this law? For what? Because this is Russia and nobody agrees to kill without the signature of somebody more important who gave the order.' The Kremlin has denied any involvement in Litvinenko's death. Whatever the truth, the manner in which he died has tarnished Putin's reputation in the west. And so has the execution of a journalist who had been accused of nothing more than doing her job.

At first Putin, like most other Russians, tried to ignore the Politkovskaya murder. He refused even to make a gesture of sympathy. As mourners gathered at services in Helsinki, Paris and New York, and as many others - most of them members of Moscow's dwindling liberal establishment - laid flowers on the doorstep of Politkovskaya's apartment building and attended her funeral, at the Troyekurovskoye Cemetery, on the outskirts of Moscow, the president said nothing. On 10 October he travelled to Dresden (where he had been stationed as a KGB operative in the Eighties) for a meeting with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Afterwards they appeared at a press conference, and Putin was no longer able to avoid questions about the killing. He responded curtly, 'She was well known in the media community, in human rights circles, and in the west, but her influence on political life within Russia was very minimal ... In my opinion, she was too radical, and by virtue of this radicalism she did not have a very strong influence on political life within the country, and especially in Chechnya.'

The president's detached and clinical approach to the murder infuriated Politkovskaya's colleagues and shocked her family. 'It was like he was saying she was of no value to the Kremlin, so she didn't deserve to live,' Elena Kudimova told me. 'I don't care what he thought of her work, but what kind of man speaks that way about the dead?'

Euphoria cannot sustain a business, however. When Yeltsin instituted the economic reforms known as 'shock therapy' in 1992, prices soared and the cost of publishing a newspaper became prohibitive. There were no advertisements, and subscriptions all but evaporated, along with whatever innocence remained. The moral tone of the journalistic world began to shift, from idealistic to mercenary. The practice of writing biased news articles for money became routine even at the best papers. Restaurant owners, businessmen and public officials knew that the right price would bring them favourable coverage almost anywhere. 'It would be good to say we had our hands clean at all times,' Raf Shakirov, who later became the editor of Izvestia, told me. 'We tried. But it was done by everyone. Absolutely everyone.'

As the process of Soviet disintegration accelerated, the Yeltsin government was consumed by economic and social chaos. Leaders of several Russian regions, including Siberia and Yakutia - both with vast reserves of diamonds, oil and gold beneath their frozen ground - began to speak openly of seceding. One Soviet general, Dzhokhar Dudayev, watched from his post in Estonia as the Baltic republics demanded independence. He resigned his commission as commander of a strategic wing of nuclear bombers, went home to Grozny and, after a dubious election, proclaimed himself the leader of an independent Chechnya. Boris Yeltsin did not take the Chechen threat seriously, but he began to worry that this rebellion, in a part of the country that had been hostile to Moscow for centuries, might set off similar demands in other republics. Yeltsin was struggling to keep the country together, and in 1993 he was even forced to turn his tanks against his own mutinous parliament.

By the end of the following year Yeltsin had heard enough talk of Chechen independence. To those who encouraged the president to negotiate - as he had with Tatarstan and other regions seeking greater autonomy - Yeltsin replied by asking if the president of Russia should really be bargaining with 'a bunch of shepherds'. Pavel Grachev, the defence minister, promised that he could win a war against Dudayev's forces with one paratroop regiment 'in two hours', and Yeltsin told him to go ahead. Instead, what became known as the first Chechen war dragged on for nearly two years. By the time it ended, in the summer of 1996, Grozny had been levelled, tens of thousands of Russians and Chechens had died, and Europe's largest army had been forced into a historic retreat.

Most Russians had quickly come to oppose the war in Chechnya, largely because of reports they saw on TV, particularly on the NTV network. NTV was owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, one of the earliest Moscow 'oligarchs'. Its correspondents were fearless. 'Those pictures created an overwhelming sense that the war was unjust and that Yeltsin had to end it,' Masha Lipman, who was the deputy editor of Gusinsky's magazine Itogi, said. 'It hurt him very badly - his popularity plummeted. The war was seen as cruel.' For the first time, the Russian press had played a central role in altering the nation's political direction. Indeed, with the single exception of the economic windfall granted to a few well-placed men - oligarchs who were permitted to buy state property at ludicrously low prices - the war in Chechnya did more to unravel the promise of Yeltsin's presidency than any other event.

The young liberals who worked at Moscow's newspapers and television stations, and had championed Yeltsin's rise during the Gorbachev years, were terrified their liberties would vanish under a neo-Communist government. For all his faults and his increasing malevolence, Yeltsin rarely challenged the right of the press to do its job in Chechnya or anywhere else. 'Yeltsin was an opportunist, as every politician is,' Igor Malashenko, the founding president of NTV, told me recently. 'He had personal flaws and made mistakes. But he did not need to control everything. He had a visceral taste for democracy and freedom. And he loved the mess.' So, despite Yeltsin's precarious health, his loss of public support, and an inner circle riven by factional disputes and corruption, the most influential journalists in Russia - led by Malashenko and NTV - decided nothing was more important than protecting Yeltsin.

They wanted to drive Communism from Russia forever; impartiality, they felt, was too decorous a response to what they saw as a national emergency. As a Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, I saw many of my friends were certain that a Yeltsin loss would be a disaster for the country. One day, I travelled with the press corps to Novosibirsk, a centre of Soviet-era science and scholarship, to watch Zyuganov campaign. He was attempting to convince people that their new freedoms were filled with false promises. At that time factory salaries were often paid in dish towels, tyres or cheap cutlery. Inflation had rendered pensions almost worthless, and people in the crowd listened to Zyuganov with hope and relief. My friends in the Russian press, however, were disgusted. 'We got rid of this shit,' one of them told me that night, 'and we are never going to let it back. Never.' They wrote accordingly. Any suggestion that journalism shouldn't work that way was rebuffed with assertions that people in America and Europe had less at stake.

'When NTV was busy reflecting Yeltsin, when he had two per cent and it magically went to 54 per cent, why didn't you in the west say, "Careful, Russia, this will lead to a system you will regret,"?' Leonid Parfyonov asked me recently. Until two years ago Parfyonov was the nation's most influential television host, but he was abruptly fired after a dispute with the Kremlin over the censoring of his Sunday-night political news programme. He is now the editor of the Russian edition of Newsweek. 'No. We never got that from the west. You all said, "Good job. Yeltsin good, Zyuganov bad." You prevented the return of Communism as much as we did.' That is true, no doubt. But when Russia's young democrats jettisoned the rules of democracy they also forfeited their independence. That made what came next for the media, and for Russia, possible - perhaps even inevitable.

The 1996 election 'put a poison seed into the soil,' Andrei Norkin, a former anchor for NTV, told me. Norkin now works for the satellite network RTV1, which is owned by Vladimir Gusinsky. 'And, even if we did not see why, the authorities understood at once: mass media could very easily be manipulated to achieve any goal. Whether the Kremlin needed to raise the rating of a president or bring down an opponent or conduct an operation to destroy a business, or a man, the media could do the job. Once the Kremlin understood that it could use journalists as instruments of its will, and saw that journalists would go along, everything that happened in the Putin era was, sadly, quite logical.'

A few months before Putin became president, in 2000, there was a battle for control of parliament - and, by implication, the government - as Russia prepared for the end of Yeltsin's administration. One group was backed by the Kremlin and the other by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and the extraordinarily powerful mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. The outcome was determined wholly by television coverage. Most newspapers had lost what influence they had had. Channel 1, the main state network, unleashed a barrage of biased, defamatory reports that destroyed Primakov in less than two months. As Alexander Rodnyansky, who is the head of CTC, one of Russia's major television networks, put it, 'Television is the only reality in which we exist.'

Putin had seen what true press freedom could accomplish during the first Chechen war, and he was not about to repeat Yeltsin's mistake. In 1999, after the explosions that terrorised Moscow and provided the rationale for instigating the second Chechen war, the Kremlin quickly assumed control of essentially all television in Russia and responded harshly to those who tried to resist. On 14 April 2001 the state-controlled energy monolith, Gazprom, forcibly took over NTV - cutting Andrei Norkin off in the middle of a sentence as he tried to explain what was happening inside the studios. The screen filled with coloured stripes. Igor Malashenko referred to the seizure - a decisive moment in the muffling of free speech in Russia - as 'a creeping coup'. Networks soon became wholly owned by the state or by companies - like Gazprom, which owns three networks and also Izvestia - that function as corporate arms of the government.

 
 

 

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