As the Vedomosti newspaper put it, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya has elicited a “tornado of reactions” worldwide. From Russian journalists and human rights activists to US President George W. Bush, who called Politkovskaya “a fearless investigative journalist, highly respected in both Russia and the United States” (quoted in Nezavisimaya Gazeta) – everyone is calling on the Russian authorities “to conduct a vigorous and thorough investigation to bring to justice those responsible for her murder.”
Timothy Balding, head of the World Association of Newspapers, which unites over 18,000 publications, described the murder of Politkovskaya as “an outrageous attack not only on journalists but on the freedom of the press and democracy in Russia,” as Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports.
The Kommersant newspaper quoted the Financial Times: “There is obviously no direct link between the murder of Russia’s best-known campaigning journalist at the weekend, Moscow’s clampdown on Georgians and Gazprom’s decision to go it alone in one of the world’s biggest energy projects. But in all three events, there is a strand of increasingly intolerant nationalism that should send a chill through all of Russia’s neighbours and partners.”
As Vedomosti reports, the US State Department said that the intimidation and murder of journalists in Russia, including the murder of Paul Klebnikov, is “an affront to free and independent media and to democratic values.”
Vedomosti also quotes Council of Europe Secretary General Terry Davis, who said he was “shocked by the news of Anna Politkovskaya’s death and extremely concerned about the circumstances in which her life was cut short.”
Leading German political analyst Alexander Rahr gave Vedomosti his own forecast, to the effect that “the most improbable theories” about this crime will be discussed in the West, and the Russian authorities will face “continual questions” about the investigation, even at the very highest political level.
And that is what happened when President Vladimir Putin met with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Dresden this week.
Merkel said she was shaken by the murder of the Russian journalist. Kommersant special correspondent Andrei Kolesnikov quotes her as saying: “Freedom for those who report the news is a very important achievement of democracy, and the Russian president has promised me that every effort will be made to investigate this murder.” Putin also spoke out on this topic. He described the murder as “sickening in its brutality,” then noted that although Politkovskaya was a critic of the authorities, the degree of her influence on Russian politics should not be overestimated: “It was minimal.” According to Putin, “her murder is doing far more damage than her articles ever did.”
Kolesnikov notes: “By saying that Anna Politkovskaya’s death is doing far more damage to the authorities than her life, Putin even seemed to be making excuses (which is uncharacteristic behavior for him, to put it mildly).”
Kolesnikov goes on to say that Putin made another promise: “No matter who did this, they will be punished.” This might be interpreted, says Kolesnikov, as a hint at a “Chechnya connection” in the case. Yet Putin’s next words expanded the circle of suspects: “Those who are hiding from Russian justice are prepared to sacrifice someone to create a wave of anti-Russian sentiments.”
Chechnya’s leaders found it necessary to respond immediately to the “Chechnya connection” theory.
In an interview with Vremya Novostei, President Alu Alkhanov of Chechnya noted: “Anna Politkovskaya had her own views on the methods used to carry out the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya, but that was her personal opinion – and everyone in a free society is entitled to their personal opinion.” Moreover, said Alkhanov, “ultimately, all her articles were motivated by concern for the fate of Russia, the rights of its citizens, and the rights of every individual.”
Chechnya’s main character, Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, was even more definite: “I feel sincere human pity for the journalist. Such things are unacceptable in a democratic society, and this event offers substantial grounds to think things over and draw some significant conclusions.” All the same, according to Kadyrov, “people should not indulge in assumptions and speculations, at the level of rumors and gossip, when a prominent journalist is killed – and should not talk of some sort of ‘Chechnya connection’ based on assumptions.”
But the “Chechnya theory seems the most likely, according to Politkovskaya’s workmates at the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.
“We don’t know who killed her, or why. We can only propose two basic theories,” said Novaya Gazeta Chief Editor Dmitri Muradov in an interview with the Argumenty i Fakty weekly. “It might have been revenge by Ramzan Kadyrov, about whose activities she said and wrote a great deal. Or it might be the work of those who want the shadow of suspicion to fall on Kadyrov, now that he’s turned 30 and become eligible to run for president of Chechnya.”
Argumenty i Fakty mentions Kadyrov’s assurances that although he disagreed with the stance Politkovskaya took as a journalist, he had nothing against her presonally: “Even though her articles served as the basis for several criminal cases, on torture and abduction charges, allegedly involving Ramzan Kadyrov himself and those around him.”
Meanwhile, Novaya Gazeta published Politkovskaya’s final interview with Radio Liberty on Thursday, October 5. She was killed on Saturday, October 7.
Here’s what she said about Ramzan Kadyrov: “He’s a coward, armed to the teeth, surrounded by bodyguards. I don’t think he’ll become president. I have this deep inner conviction – an intuition, perhaps, not rational at all – not confirmed by Alu Alkhanov in any way. Alu Alkhanov is a very weak person. That’s Alkhanov’s problem, and it has a lot to do with Ramzan Kadyrov’s increasingly draconian behavior… On Kadyrov’s birthday, I have only one wish. I’m quite serious about this. I wish he was on the defendant’s bench in a courtroom. With the strictest possible legal proceedings underway, listing all the crimes, investigating all his crimes.”
That says it all, really.
“I told Anna that she should change her topic,” said Dmitri Muradov in an interview with Izvestia. “Since they’ve chosen Kadyrov in Chechnya, let them live with him. I argued with her, trying to make her write about other issues. But on the other hand, what could I do if people kept coming to see her? They were queueing up to tell her of their misfortunes.”
Along with the Chechnya theory, Izvestia looks at another theory: “murder for the purpose of destabilizing the situation.”
Izvestia cites an anonymous analytical brief posted on a website, dated 2005. It lists measures for destabilizing the situation in Russia – measures allegedly proposed by Leonid Nevzlin, a former YUKOS executive now living in Israel. One of these measures is reprisal against Politkovskaya: “Because she is in acute conflict with all the security and law enforcement chiefs, and the Russian leadership as a whole, her murder would compromise the authorities.”
And there’s another theory (no less “crazy,” according to Izvestia): the idea that another “outcast” from Russia, Boris Berezovsky, is involved in this murder. “It can’t be ruled out that some of those who have left their homeland are seeking to portray Russia as a country where people can get killed for their convictions.” This ensures “a stable status for these people – the status of political refugees, persecuted for their commitment to liberty and democratic ideals.”
There’s an obvious parallel here with what President Putin said about fugitives from Russian justice, capable of anything for the sake of “creating a wave of anti-Russian sentiments.”
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev told Vremya Novostei: “This is a grave crime against our country, against all of us. Once again, someone is seeking to cast a shadow on the Russian leadership and on the positive processes taking place in the Caucasus.”
Opposition politicians also gave their views on the situation. In Novaya Gazeta, Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky described Politkovskaya’s death as “an absolutely political murder.” Yavlinsky said: “The president bears personal responsibility for this murder. The authorities bear the full weight of responsibility for the murder of a well-known, respected political journalist, part of the opposition within the system.”
Another prominent democrat, Union of Right Forces leader Nikita Belykh, has his own complaints against the authorities: “The system established in our country a few years ago (the retreat from civil liberties, the departure from democracy, and so on) is justified by arguments about the need to maintain stability and order. Of late, however, we have witnessed the kind of incidents that haven’t happened for a long time. First the murder of Kozlov, now the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. It’s worth considering: if we’re paying this price for non-existent law and order, wouldn’t it be better to change the system?”
Human rights activist Vladimir Bukovsky was even more categorical in speaking of the reasons behind Politkovskaya’s death: “It can’t be attributed to her business interests, because she didn’t have any. Her only enemy was the corrupt Russian system – and that is what killed her.”
In Novye Izvestia, Valery Yakov says: “Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was hated in certain agencies in Chechnya and certain offices in Moscow. But that’s not all. She was hated by many security and law enforcement officers, and by skinhead gangs. All the extreme right-wing nationalists had her name on their ‘enemies of Russia’ lists, with some of these lists including her home address. She received death threats. Attempts were made to intimidate her.”
And eventually she was killed: “She was killed in revenge for telling truths that cannot be denied with anything other than a bullet. For honesty that cannot be bought. For irony that humiliates even the strongest and most powerful, revealing them as weak and naked.”
Moreover, says Yakov, “she was killed as a lesson to the few remaining journalists who are still trying to inform the country about what is really happening, rather than fawning on the authorities and playing along with them. She was killed in the cold-blooded style characteristic of those who are certain that they will never be found, never be named, never be brought to justice.”
A great many of Politkovskaya’s fellow journalists have expressed themselves in similarly emotional terms. But Maria Eismont, independent media support program coordinator at the Eurasia Foundation, says in Vedomosti: “After all that has been said, it’s strange to still feel a sense of emptiness and something unsaid.”
Yes, journalists have “mourned, remembered, and called for revenge.” Yes, human rights activists have demanded a thorough investigation and punishment of those responsible – “while doubting that even the hitmen will be found, let alone those who really ordered the killing.”
And President Putin, who “remained silent for the first two days, as usual,” eventually spoke out as well – though his words, “as usual,” were addressed not to his own country, but to the head of another state and Western journalists. Once again, those journalists expressed concern about democracy and freedom of speech in Russia.
However, says Eismont, among this multitude of voices, one voice still wasn’t heard: the voice of Russian society. “The silent majority that is the focus of so many arguments – described at various times as apolitical cattle, or a reliable bulwark for the authorities, or the hope of the democratic revolution. The majority that’s been the object of so many appeals that it’s long since withdrawn from politics and public life, retreating to careers and business, family matters, the couch and the television.”
According to the Vedomosti article, Politkovskaya’s death could have made many people abandon the cynicism which has become so widespread in recent years – the “superficially mocking tone” adopted in contemporary Russia (not only in the media) when discussing “anything to do with civil society or defending rights.”
A condescending attitude to human rights defenders (“let them be, nobody’s interested in them anyway”) has long since become commonplace. They, like Politkovskaya (defined in Kommersant as “a human (civil) rights defender who worked through her writing”), are often discredited and marginalized deliberately. This approach, according to Maria Eismont, was perceptible in President Putin’s comments when he said that Politkovskaya’s influence on Rusian politics was minimal. However, as Eismont points out, “fringe journalists whose influence is minimal don’t get murdered. The journalists who do get murdered are investigative journalists who discover evidence that causes problems for someone and does influence matters.”
Over the past few years, “proclaimed adherence to democratic standards, the rule of law, and human rights has diverged from political reality more and more,” says the Kommersant newspaper. Despite this, however, no demand for human rights activism has arisen.
In a Levada Center poll cited in Kommersant, 54% of respondents said that human rights and civil liberties are not the most important values for them. Freedom of speech was given priority by only 28% of respondents, media freedom scored 19%, and the right to elect representatives to office scored 16%. But 76% named the right to free education and healthcare as a priority, 57% favored the right to decently-paid work suited to their skills and qualifications, and 35% named the right to own property.
In other words, the majority of Russian citizens give top priority to material rights and values – not abstract human rights such as the right of access to objective information.
As Kommersant observes, human rights defenders (including those who work through writing) are becoming “increasingly dubious, futile figures” for the majority of Russian citizens: “at best, half-mad – at worst, agents of forces seeking to undermine Russia.”
Perhaps this is why no one is claiming that the murder of Anna Politkovskaya has stirred up Russian society – as Vladimir Pozner remarked at the close of his television program: “Such are the times we’re living in.”
Well, our history has seen times that were words – but have they ever been more dishonorable?