The aftermath of Anna Politkovskaya’s death

The death of Anna Politkovskaya shocked the West. World leaders expressed their condolences. But Russia exists in a different dimension. Politkovskaya’s murder was just a routine contract killing here, and President Vladimir Putin responded with some purely Soviet-style reasoning.

The death of Anna Politkovskaya shocked the West: in almost all world capitals, people rallied in mourning, remembrance, and protest. World leaders expressed their condolences. But Russia exists in a different dimension. Politkovskaya’s murder was just a routine contract killing here, and President Vladimir Putin responded with some purely Soviet-style reasoning, equating the prominent human rights journalist with enemies of the official authorities.

Putin verged on justifying himself and deflecting suspicion from Ramzan Kadyrov. He said that Politkovskaya’s murder “had done more damage than her articles” to himself and to the government of Chechnya.

Investigators are focusing on several theories: Kadyrov’s associates; Kadyrov’s enemies, seeking to frame him; the military, damaged by Politkovskaya’s articles; or a lone killer. For some reason, Putin’s theory about the murder being masterminded by a fugitive oligarch isn’t being considered.

It appears that Politkovskaya’s murder probably did have something to do with Chechnya. Most likely, it also had something to do with Ramzan Kadyrov; she was his fiercest critic among Russian journalists. Actually, this is evidence in his favor. Grigori Shvedov, editor of the Caucasus Knot website, says: “It was clear in advance that he would be the chief suspect, unofficially. He was aware of that – so it would have taken an extreme threat to make him do it.” Since the start of this year, Politkovskaya had published a record number of accusatory articles about Chechnya’s leader.

In a Radio Liberty interview two days before her death, Politkovskaya called Kadyrov a coward and said that she had only one wish: to see him stand trial. She also mentioned that among the materials on her desk was a photo of two people who had been abducted and killed by the Kadyrovtsy (Kadyrov’s security forces). An informed source told us that this was a reference to an incident from May 9, 2005: eight alleged guerrillas, allegedly killed in combat (including those two particular people), were actually victims of what the source describes as a “ritual killing” timed for the first anniversary of Akhmad Kadyrov’s death. But this is “a routine matter, not dangerous,” according to the source, and could hardly have been the reason for Politkovskaya’s death.

According to our sources, Politkovskaya knew of a case involving one of Ramzan Kadyrov’s bodyguards who fled to Europe a year ago. His father was subsequently arrested, held for 311 days, then released; he also fled to Europe, and is now prepared to testify against Kadyrov. This is a more serious matter. First of all, however, it’s by no means certain that Kadyrov and his team knew of this. Secondly, Politkovskaya’s death is unlikely to change anything here. Russia has already lost eight Chechnya-related cases at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg: six were organized by the Memorial human rights center, two by the Legal Initiative for Russia.

And the leader of Chechnya does care what the media say about him. “We can write freely about everything, except for one taboo topic – Ramzan Kadyrov,” says Timur Aliyev from the “Chechen Society” newspaper in Grozny.

So relations between Politkovskaya and Kadyrov were indeed tense. She interviewed him in July 2004. It was unusual. A woman who accompanied Politkovskaya to Kadyrov’s home town of Tsentoroi recalls that it was a very difficult conversation (this is apparent from the text), which grew increasingly tense, so that the two of them practically had to be separated by force: “But even in the extreme heat of the moment, Anna managed to intercede for two people who had been abducted by the Kadyrovtsy. And soon afterwards, they were found.”

The following day, according to the source, Kadyrov decided to humiliate Politkovskaya. They were taken back to Tsentroi, where a separatist field commander was allegedly surrendering. “It was very scary,” says the source, “and that second trip was a big mistake.”

Kadyrov’s associates say that Politkovskaya’s murder primarily serves the interests of Kadyrov’s enemies: including Movladi Baisarov, commander of the FSB’s Highlander special squad, who says that “Kadyrov wants to become a dictator.” Police investigators are also mentioning Baisarov. However, a Kremlin source maintains that Politkovskaya’s murder can’t possibly have any impact on Kadyrov’s career, and that he’ll become the president of Chechnya later this year or early next year. Putin has said as much, almost openly.

According to another theory, Politkovskaya’s murder might have been an act of revenge by Sergei “Kadet” Lapin, former police officer from Nizhnevartovsk, or his co-workers Minin and Prilepin, who are on the wanted list. Lapin tortured and killed Grozny resident Zelimkhan Murdalov; he was sentenced to eleven-and-a-half years last year. This might be considered the most successful case for Politkovskaya as a human rights activist. To date, it has been the only trial of a non-Chechen in Grozny. The court case was based on Politkovskaya’s articles, and Lapin’s threats forced her to spend several months abroad in 2001. According to our sources, Murdalov’s family members in Europe have recently received threats in connection with this case.

Human rights defenders say that Politkovskaya’s articles were her chief weapon. Journalists say that she wasn’t a journalist in the pure sense; she intervened in the course of events and failed to maintain standards: her articles were full of exclamation marks and emotions. But she was a star in the West, speaking as a leading expert on the Caucasus in her capacity as a human rights journalist. In Russia, she was generally considered either an enemy or a half-crazy activist. Only in the Caucasus was she taken seriously; and she has been widely mourned there, according to our sources – even by government officials.

Magomed Mutsolgov from Nazran maintains that Politkovskaya deserved credit for almost stopping abductions in Ingushetia by the end of 2004: “She broke through the media blockade.”

During her field trips, Politkovskaya used to organize something like public reception offices. Her newspaper office also became a human rights office, says Vitaly Yaroshevsky; many people approached her, asking her to intercede for them. Foreign journalists would come to her as well. She always accused Western human rights groups of being conformist and too soft on Moscow. The last time she did this was at a conference in Stockholm in September. Meanwhile, human rights groups accused her of being unsystematic, and pointed out that the individuals featured as case studies in her articles would often face repercussions afterwards, but she disregarded that.

For several years now, opinion polls have recorded declining interest in the war in Chechnya. For the rest of Russia, Chechnya and the entire Caucasus have become a kind of gray area: it’s best not to hear about what is happening there. Television news broadcasts restrict themselves to reporting on the withdrawal of federal forces from Chechnya. Accounts of torture and murder are confined to the reports of human rights organizations, and no one in Russia takes any interest in those apart from the organizations themselves. Ramzan Kadyrov is featured in glossy celebrity magazines, while Anna Politkovskaya, his most consistent biographer, became an outcast. But her funeral lasted several hours, with the queue of mourners stretching for hundreds of meters. Posthumously, she has become a significant figure in public life.