MOSCOW- On Saturday, October 7, the prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building. Her assassin, a tall-dark haired man wearing a large cap to conceal his face, was caught on tape. The Novaya Gazeta newspaper where Politovskaya worked has offered a $930,000 reward for details leading to the arrest of whoever was involved in the killing.
Today Reuters is reporting that during a phone call Sunday afternoon regarding North Korea's nuclear test, President Bush raised the issue with President Putin of attacks on journalists in Russia. Putin responded that Russian law enforcement would thoroughly investigate the crime and have every resource at their disposal. In the official White House statement, President Bush urged Russia to "conduct a vigorous and thorough investigation to bring to justice those responsible" for the crime. Yuri Chaika, Russia's Prosecutor-General (counterpart of the U.S. Attorney General), has taken charge of the case.
Novaya Gazeta, which has former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as one of its publishers, claims that Politovskaya was working on a major new expose of human rights abuses by security forces in Chechnya. The fact that the murder coincided with President Putin's birthday (birthdays are very important in Russian traditions) suggests that someone wanted to send a message, and has led many Western media outlets to charge that the Kremlin or security services were behind the crime. USA Today, the largest circulation newspaper in America, compares Vladimir Putin to Josef Stalin in their editorial today. Many Russian analysts, in contrast to their Western counterparts, have asked: who benefits from Mrs. Politovskaya's death?
Security camera image of the killer
An article today on the Gazeta.ru news site offers three theories why Politovskaya was killed. The first is the theory most widely accepted in the Western media, that her personal criticism of Putin and coverage of Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya made her a target. The second is that Politovskaya offended a powerful businessman, or that friends of a former officer in the security forces now on trial for war crimes in Chechnya in part due to Politovskaya's reporting, ordered the hit. The last possibility the Gazeta article raises is that someone wanted to embarrass Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov and the Kremlin by blaming them for her death. The UK Times article today also repeats this speculation:
Alexei Malashenko, of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, told the Times that the murder could have been ordered by somebody determined to block Mr. Kadyrov's rise. He did not rule out involvement by Russian security services.
Recent history suggests that Anna Politovskaya's killers may never be found. In the Washington Post's coverage of this crime, Mrs. Politovskaya has frequently been compared to the late Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov. Mrs. Politovskaya, like Klebnikov, had been writing about corruption and human rights abuses in Chechnya for years.
Klebnikov, as we have pointed out many times here at Russia Blog, was murdered only six weeks after publishing the Forbes article Millionaire Mullahs, an expose on the ruling Iranian clerics' overseas investments. The mullahs obviously do not want any of their assets to be seized or "disappear" during their nuclear confrontation with the U.S. and have demonstrated their willingness to kill people outside Iran's borders. Klebnikov had also accused Boris Berezovsky and other oligarchs in his book Godfather of the Kremlin of ordering multiple contract killings. Clearly there is more than one set of suspects in Klebnikov's still-unsolved murder, and more than one party that stood to benefit from Politovskaya's death as well.
Things are often not what they seem in Russia. While every editorial today noted the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists' startling statistic that 13 journalists have been killed since Putin took office in 2000, 29 reporters were murdered during the Yeltsin administration, and business-related killings were far more common during the 1990s. Nonetheless, the murder of any journalist is an attack not only on a person but on the whole Russian nation. With this crime coming on the heels of the assassination of Putin's Deputy Finance Minister Andrei Kozlov, the perception in Russia is that no one - pro-Kremlin or anti-Kremlin - is safe from the assassin's bullet.
Today our thoughts are with Mrs. Politovskaya's family and colleagues, and we join the Russian people in hoping for swift justice.