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Who Killed Anna Politkovskaya?

An even more devastating act of terrorism took place in September 2004 in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. Just as children were returning to classes, a group of between thirty and fifty masked terrorists armed with guns and explosives entered the elementary school and took more than a thousand hostages. The Kremlin responded by sending the same FSB general—Vladimir Pronichev—who had mismanaged the crisis at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater. Rather than pursuing negotiations with the hostage-takers, Pronichev immediately made plans to storm the school. Predictably, the attack, which took place on the third day of the standoff, ended in disaster: 333 hostages—children, parents, and their teachers—died. Instead of being fired, Pronichev was promoted to army general, the highest military rank.

As with the Dubrovka siege, there were many strange circumstances surrounding the Beslan crisis. No one could explain how such a large, heavily armed group of terrorists managed to enter the town and get into the school unnoticed, or why the authorities insisted that they had killed all but one hostage-taker, who was captured, when eyewitnesses saw several escape. Also disturbing was what happened to Politkovskaya after she decided to fly to Beslan and intervene in the crisis. She was trying to reach Chechen resistance leader and former president of Chechnya Aslan Maskhadov—whom she had interviewed in the past—and urge him to come to Beslan so that he could persuade the hostage-takers to give up their siege.

But just minutes after she took off in a plane from Moscow, she was offered a cup of tea. After drinking it, she fell ill, went into a coma, and hovered between life and death in a hospital for several days. (According to several sources, she never fully recovered her health after this happened.) Politkovskaya assumed that she had been poisoned by the FSB officers whom she had seen on the plane with her. The FSB, it seemed, did not want her interfering in the Beslan crisis especially given her efforts to enlist Maskhadov, whom the Kremlin had denounced as a terrorist.

Not surprisingly, Politkovskaya’s experiences hardened her attitude toward the Kremlin. She believed Putin was manipulating the Chechen problem to justify his campaign against terrorism and that he was using that campaign to clamp down on democratic rights in Russia. In her book Putin’s Russia (published abroad in 2004 but not in Russia until after her death, when it appeared on Novaya Gazeta‘s Web site), she wrote:

Why do I so dislike Putin? This is precisely why. I dislike him for a matter-of-factness worse than felony, for his cynicism, for his racism, for his lies, for the gas he used in the Nord-Ost [Dubrovka] siege, for the massacre of the innocents which went on throughout his first term as President.

Politkovskaya was a shrewd observer of Russian politics, chronicling the death of parliamentary democracy as the Russian Duma increasingly came under Kremlin control. She saw Putin’s reelection in 2004 as a farce because the Kremlin had managed, through its control of the media and its introduction of undemocratic election laws, to render opposition parties completely ineffective. In Putin’s Russia she compared Putin to Stalin and mocked the cult of personality he had built around himself:

In a few hours Putin, a typical lieutenant-colonel of the Soviet KGB…will ascend the throne of Russia once again. His outlook is the narrow, provincial one his rank would suggest; he has the unprepossessing personality of a lieutenant-colonel who never made it to colonel, the manner of a Soviet secret policeman who habitually snoops on his own colleagues.

Another target of Politkovskaya’s journalism was Ramzan Kadyrov, the violent and corrupt young Chechen whom Putin and the FSB installed in the Chechen government—he eventually became president in early 2007 after reaching the requisite age of thirty—following the assassination of his father, the Chechen president Akhmed Kadyrov, in 2004. In that year pro-Moscow Chechen paramilitary forces began taking over the war against Chechen separatists, while Russian forces provided logistical support. As Politkovskaya reported, Kadyrov’s militia, the so-called kadyrovtsy, was (and still is) notoriously brutal against the resistance, kidnapping, torturing, and killing innocent civilians by the hundreds.4

When Politkovskaya interviewed the Chechen leader in June 2004, her meeting with him ended badly. Her questions were too probing, especially when she asked him about other Chechen warlords and resistance fighters, who were his enemies. Surrounded by his bodyguards, Kadyrov lost his temper, accusing her of being an enemy of Chechens and threatening her: “I am not a criminal. I will hold you here. I won’t let you go.” Politkovskaya was shaken: “I couldn’t bear it anymore. I stood up and walked away. My tears choked me. Of course I expected a bullet in my back.” She concluded from her meeting with Kadyrov that “a little dragon has been raised by the Kremlin. Now they need to feed it. Otherwise it will spit fire.”

Just two days before her murder, Politkovskaya was interviewed on Radio Liberty about her ongoing investigation of Kadyrov and the crimes committed by his militia, which she had documented with videotapes and photographs given to her by eyewitnesses. The date of the interview, October 5, was also Kadyrov’s thirtieth birthday. Politkovskaya told Radio Liberty: “Personally, I only have one dream for Kadyrov’s birthday: I dream of him someday sitting in the dock, in a trial that meets the strictest legal standards, with all of his crimes listed and investigated.” Politkovskaya was courting danger. Her editor was so worried about her that he had even forbidden her to go to Chechnya. But she had her own agenda.

Politkovskaya was killed on Vladimir Putin’s birthday, October 7. The President said nothing publicly about the killing until October 10, when, just before leaving for a visit to Germany, he told the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung that his government would do everything to bring her assassins to justice. But he insisted that Politkovskaya’s influence inside Russia was no more than “negligible” and that “Politkovskaya’s murder has caused much more damage to the current authorities [in Moscow], and to the Chechen authorities in particular, than her reporting did.” Later that day he repeated the same views at a press conference in Dresden with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Putin’s apparent purpose in making these comments was to show that neither the Kremlin, nor its puppet regime in Chechnya, had any motive for killing Politkovskaya. Why would his government or the Chechen leadership risk their reputations by murdering a journalist who was insignificant? To deflect any speculation about Kremlin involvement, Putin implied that the killer must have been an enemy of the government.

There was an official silence on the Politkovskaya investigation until late August 2007, when Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, whose office investigates most major crimes, held a press conference on the murder. It was remarkable for its sheer audacity, if nothing else. In the press conference, which is shown in Bergkraut’s film, Chaika announced that ten people had been arrested for taking part in the murder and that they would soon be brought to trial. The actual killers, he said, were Chechen thugs, members of a Moscow criminal group that specialized in contract murders. But Chaika added that “unfortunately,” officers from the FSB and the regular police had provided the killers with operational support, which included surveillance of the victim, with two groups tailing her alternately. As for who masterminded the crime, Chaika said, “The investigations have revealed that only people from outside the Russian Federation [to which Chechnya belongs] could have had any interest in eliminating Politkovskaya.” The murder was useful, he said, to people who were “out to destabilize the situation in Russia…those who are trying to stir up a crisis and want, not only to return to the old system, where money and oligarchs ruled, but also who want to discredit Russian leaders.”

Although Chaika did not make a direct accusation, he was clearly referring to Putin’s archenemy, Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian tycoon and former oligarch now living in London. Kremlin sources had already hinted strongly that Berezovsky was behind the fatal radiation poisoning of London-based exile and former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, which had occurred a month after the Politkovskaya murder.

By the time of Chaika’s announcement—over ten months after the murder—the investigation of the Politkovskaya killing was falling apart. The names of the suspects had already been leaked to the press, thus hampering efforts to successfully prosecute them. More importantly, Chaika himself was no longer in charge of the case; it had been handed over to a new “investigative committee,” which was part of the prosecutor’s office, but not under Chaika’s jurisdiction. The committee had been formed as the result of a bitter feud between Putin’s two main security chiefs, FSB director Nikolai Patrushev and Viktor Cherkesov, the head of the Drug Control Agency.

Both men were Putin loyalists from the St. Petersurg KGB, but competition for power and Kremlin riches, as well as the uncertainty over what would happen when Putin stepped down as president, fueled a conflict involving these and other powerful Putin deputies. Putin reportedly had long been trying to balance the powers of the two security chiefs, to prevent either from prevailing, but the conflict became more intense. The feud emerged publicly just around the time of Politkovskaya’s murder in the fall of 2006, when, with Chaika’s approval, a group of Patrushev’s FSB officers were arrested on corruption charges by agents from Cherkesov’s Drug Control Agency. In retaliation, Patrushev and his Kremlin allies managed later to undercut the Cherkesov–Chaika group by establishing the investigative committee, with their handpicked candidate, a prosecutor named Aleksander Bastrykin, as its head.

With the support of the Patrushev group, Bastrykin’s investigative committee wrested control of the Politkovskaya case (along with the Klebnikov, Kozlov, and Litvinenko cases) from Prosecutor General Chaika. In early September 2007, Chaika’s main investigator on the Politkovskaya case was demoted, and several new investigators were brought in. Nine months later, in June 2008, a representative from the investigative committee announced that the case was ready to go to court. But after numerous arrests and reports that a large group of criminals were involved in various aspects of the murder, the government ended up with only four men still in custody. Three were charged as accomplices to the killing: a former MVD officer and two brothers of Chechen nationality. The fourth detainee, FSB Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov, was being held on lesser charges—abuse of office and extortion in connection with the case. A brother of the two Chechens in custody, Rustam Makhmudov, said to have been the one who shot Politkovskaya, was still at large. In early July, Bastrykin announced that the killer was somewhere in Western Europe but gave no explanation about how he had managed to escape Russia.

As for who gave the order to have Politkovskaya killed—the most important question—the investigative committee offered no answers, leaving others to speculate. Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruthless warlord of Chechnya—shown in Berkgraut’s film celebrating his birthday last year with elaborate fanfare like a mini-Stalin—might seem an obvious suspect. In an apparent effort to end speculation about his involvement in the murder, Kadyrov boasted that “if she [Politkovskaya] had bothered us, we would have done it long ago.” But because he rules under the command of the Kremlin, he would never have dared to embark on such a bold venture on his own, either in Chechnya or Moscow. As a Chechen who now lives in exile told me, Kadyrov is authorized to kill only his own people. It is unlikely that Moscow would have given Kadyrov approval to murder Politkovskaya, or to have enlisted his assistance in the crime, because Putin and his colleagues view him as reckless and untrustworthy. (That doesn’t exclude the possibility that some of Kadyrov’s henchmen were involved, however.5)

Russian exiles in the West, including Berezovsky, insist that President Putin was the mastermind. Putin certainly had reason to want Politkovskaya silenced. She was his most persistent and outspoken critic, even insulting him personally in her writings, which she must have known would arouse his anger. Despite Putin’s claim that Politkovskaya had little influence on political life in Russia, we can be sure that what she wrote, even in the English-language press, caused a huge stir in the Kremlin.6 But even if Putin wanted Politkovskaya killed, it is unlikely that he, as president of Russia, would have given direct orders for the murder. He would probably have left the initiative to the FSB, only to find out about it afterward.

Dmitry Medvedev’s assumption of the Russian presidency in May of this year has done nothing to change the atmosphere of violence and lawlessness that prevails in Russia, especially since Putin, as prime minister, is still in charge. Putin’s close friend Patrushev—who was head of the FSB during many of the mysterious recent killings—has stepped down. But his replacement, Alexander Bortnikov, worked for many years with both Patrushev and Putin in the KGB and is closely allied to them. The security services, for all their internal rivalries and corruption, are deeply entrenched at all levels of the government and make up what amounts to a new ruling class.

Under these conditions, Russian journalists have been under more pressure than ever to follow the official line. Since the beginning of September, two journalists who have reported critically on government actions in the Caucasus have been murdered. In the North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia, Magomed Yevloyev, who owned an influential opposition Web site that was strongly critical of Ingushetia’s Kremlin-backed governor, was shot in the head after being arrested by the police; in Dagestan, Telman Alishayev, a television reporter, was killed by unidentified gunmen. And a third journalist was left with a fractured skull after an assault outside his home in the city of Nalchik, also in the North Caucasus.

Elena Tregubova, a former correspondent for the Moscow paper Kommersant who has written a book about her investigative reporting on the Kremlin, was forced to seek asylum in Britain because of death threats against her. In Bergkraut’s film she observes: “To be honest, when things are like this, none of us can blame [journalists] for either lying or keeping quiet.” But Politkovskaya’s former colleagues at Novaya Gazeta refuse to be intimidated. As Letter to Anna recounts, just after her death, the editor, Dmitry Muratov, decided to shut down the paper, saying “no newspaper was worth such sacrifices.” He was overruled by his staff, which has continued ever since to pursue the courageous reporting for which it has become known.

With the help of Politkovskaya’s son, Ilya Politkovsky, Novaya Gazeta‘s staff has been conducting its own investigation into her murder.7 Politkovsky, who has been given access to the forty-eight volumes of court documents in the case, told me that the trial, which could begin quite soon, will likely be held behind closed doors in a military court, with the family present but prohibited from speaking about the proceedings publicly. This constraint will make it even more difficult for Novaya Gazeta‘s journalists to uncover the truth about the killing. Nonetheless, Anna would have wanted them to try.

—October 8, 2008

  1. 4

    A recent example of such brutality is the campaign (reportedly condoned by Kadyrov) to stamp out Chechen resistance by burning the homes of families of rebels. See C.J. Chivers, “To Smother Rebels, Arson Campaign in Chechnya,” The New York Times, September 28, 2008.

  2. 5

    There has been speculation in the Russian press that Kadyrov’s men were behind the murder in Moscow on September 24, 2008, of former Duma deputy Ruslan Yamadaev, a wealthy Chechen who is said to have been an enemy of Kadyrov. Yamadaev was shot to death in his Mercedes as it stopped for a red light on a major Moscow street.

  3. 6

    Putin implied that Politkovskaya was not well known in Russia. But, according to a poll conducted by Moscow’s Levada Center two weeks after the murder, almost half of the respondents knew who Politkovskaya was before she was killed and over a third said they had either read Politkovskaya’s articles or heard her speak on radio and television (www.levada.ru/press/2006101901.html).

  4. 7

    Dmitry Muratov and the staff at Novaya Gazeta were unhappy with the results of the official investigation. In Muratov’s words: “You cannot say the case is closed when the zakazchik [the person who ordered the murder] is unknown and the killer has not been caught.”

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