Russia in freefall

On October 7th, President Vladimir Putin’s birthday, the Russian journalist and mother-of-two Anna Politkovskaya was shot four times in the elevator of her building in Moscow. She had been planning to release a story the next day outlining Russian torture practices in Chechnya. Politkovskaya had won international recognition for her passionate work reporting on Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya. She was also a noted critic of Russian democracy and specifically President Putin’s running of the country.

Putin’s initial response to the killing was silence. Three days later, the Russian President traveled to Dresden, Germany, the city in which he had once served as a KGB agent. Unlike in Russia, he was met by hundreds of demonstrators chanting “murderer!” and demanding a reaction by the president to the journalist’s death. Putin went on to claim that “She had minimal influence on political life in Russia” and that the killing was not, as many suspected, political. He did call the killing shocking and also sta­ted that her killers must be brought to justice adding, “Her killing inflicts much greater damage to the government than any of her writings.” In this at least, Putin was right.
We are all following the decline of Russia under Putin, a process that is taking place in a country that has never known or practiced true democracy.

Naturally, human rights abuses are committed by all of the major world powers, including the US. However, US abuses in Guantanamo and Iraq are openly discussed without fear of retribution, and the powers-that-be are politically liable for them. The November congressional elections will almost certainly prove this.
In Russia, the opposition has been systematically suffocated or shut down entirely. The death of Anna Politkovskaya is a direct by-product of the new political reality in Putin’s Russia. 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 would be flying over Kiev, Minsk, Tbilisi, Riga and maybe even Warsaw and Prague.
Politkovskaya’s death is merely 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 US editor of Forbes’ Russian edition Paul Klebnikov. The bringing to justice of the real (and not Putin-manufactured “terrorist” or “extremist”) killers of Anna Politkovskaya should become 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.” wrote Politovskaya. The morning after her killing, Putin’s police seized her personal computer. Two photographs of suspected Russian torturers then disappeared. The truth will never be known.

Until her killers, and those who sent them, are sitting behind bars, Russia must be regarded as an increasingly dangerous rogue state. If there is to be a positive side-effect to the death of Anna Politkovskaya, it will be that the world finally realizes that Russia now remains a democracy only in name.

Martin Jan Stránský


The New Presenceautumn 2006

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