Putin's Venom for Journalists Is Getting Out of Hand

Touching scene in Vietnam this week. The leaders of the industrialized world dudded up in shiny traditional Vietnamese tunics, walking elegant Asiatic landscapes, warmly shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries.

One particularly moving photo was of George W. Bush and Vladimir "Let's whack 'em in the outhouse" Putin, dressed in gentle pale blues and sauntering through a field in Hanoi. The two men would agree on a historic trade deal shortly afterward, with Bush welcoming Putin into the WTO. Bush would later call the deal "good for the United States and good for Russia."

I've never been sure what to make of the celebrated "close friendship" that is said to exist between Bush and Putin -- to laugh at it because it is so obviously a fraud and a transparent media concoction, or to be horrified by the very remote possibility that it might be real. On the surface, the two men could not be starker opposites: Bush the silver spoon-fed dunce who was all but handed the reins of the American empire, and Putin the ultra-cunning self-made criminal mastermind who clawed his way to the top through the ranks of the Petersburg underworld. Putin bested a thousand superior men in one of the world's most lethal political arenas to get to where he is today; if he made that journey just to buddy up to a lumbering fool like George Bush, the world is an even darker place than I thought it was.

The fact that Bush chose to do a public bear-hug with Russia now says everything you need to know about this administration. Not that Vladimir Putin was ever respectable, but the events of the last months ought to have been enough to scare away any Western politician with a shred of conscience. The same America that tirelessly agitated for anti-communist dissidents like Andrei Sakharov has apparently decided that the murder of modern Russian dissidents is a non-starter -- even if those "Russian dissidents" happen also to be American citizens, like the recently-assassinated American-born reporter Anna Politkovskaya. Or even if those dissidents were attacked on Western soil, like FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned recently in England, who might very well be dead by the time this column goes online.

A little background on these two incidents. Politkovskaya, an investigative reporter for a muckraking newspaper called Novaya Gazeta, was shot to death in standard gangland format on October 7 -- two bullets in the podyezd (doorway) of her Moscow apartment building. Anna had numerous enemies and had particularly offended the Putin regime, the army, and the administration of the Chechen province with reporting on, among other things, political corruption, abuse and torture in Chechnya, and the possible involvement of the Russian secret services in a series of apartment bombings in 1999.

Litvinenko, meanwhile, was a former lieutenant colonel in the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, who defected to England six years ago. He was said to have been investigating Anna's death when he was poisoned, although there is some dispute about that as well -- more on that later. He survived a high dose of Thallium on November 1 and is currently in a British hospital in critical condition.

I've been avoiding the whole Politkovskaya issue, mainly because I'm no longer a part of that world. But on the day she was killed, there were a lot of phone calls back and forth among those of us who used to work in Moscow or who happened to know her (I met her a few times only), with everyone offering the usual expressions of astonishment and the usual speculation about who was responsible and why. If you live in Russia long enough, unfortunately, you have these conversations quite a lot. By my count Politkovskaya was the fourth reporter from that newspaper alone who's been assassinated in recent years, with the paper also losing a free-lancer named Viktor Popkov, a section editor named Igor Domikov (brained with a hammer in his podyezd) and another famed dissident voice, Yuri Shekochikhin, who was poisoned a few years back.

And that's only one newspaper, and that's occurring in a relatively safe area of operations for Russian journalists. The number of reporters who have been attacked nationwide in Russia has long ago surged past a point of being worth counting. If you want to get a sense of the geography of repression in Russia, check out this map prepared by the Glasnost foundation. The map is arranged with a tinge of gallows humor. The yellow parts, which include Moscow and St. Petersburg (where assassinations are still not uncommon), are considered "relatively free." The red parts, which are most of the country and especially most of Siberia, are "relatively unfree." The brown parts -- in particular the far east and the Caucasus -- are basically "unfree."

But let's forget "unfree" and "relatively unfree" for the moment and concentrate on "relatively free," since that appears to be the acceptable minimum -- the level of respect for free discourse we expect from our "close friends," the vigilant safeguarding of journalistic freedom we apparently need to see before we open the gates of the WTO to strangers. What people have to remember about repression of the press is that it isn't just a matter of murdering the odd incorrigible investigative journalist. In places like Russia the fight has two fronts: you put a boot in the ass of the troublesome minority when it demands it, but you spend most of your time with the other half, the mainstream media, peopling it with cowards and lackeys and half-bright clerks who'll sell out their mothers for a new Skoda and a trip once a year to some shitty third-class beach in Ibiza. As the experience of both post-communist Russia and America has proven beyond any doubt, the vast majority of journalists in this world will roll over for anyone who pays the bills even without the threat of violence. But you get a much more enthusiastic crowd of reportorial ball-washers and ass-kissers when you dash the brains out of the rare malcontent who steps out of line, and this is what Putin has achieved in Russia. That's why the best way to get a sense of what life is like for journalists in Russia these days isn't to ponder the crime scene of Anna Politkovskaya.

The best way is to read the reaction to Anna's death in the "relatively free" Moscow media. Although there were many moving tributes, there was a definite editorial strategy that the bulk of the major papers pursued, a strategy as clearly coordinated from above as one of Karl Rove's election season media campaigns. It was obvious that the relevant Russian editors got the memo: Anna was killed by Chechen terrorists or other criminals, no other versions of the murder are to be taken seriously, and in fact her murder was clearly conceived as a means to defame Vladimir Putin, who should also be considered a primary victim in this business.

Natalia Kozlova of Rossisskaya Gazeta posited that "businessman" Boris Berezovsky was to blame and added: "If the London resident is connected to the death of the journalist it would be very advantageous for him. It would certainly create a stir in Russia and inspire a negative reaction around the world. And it would provide a reason to criticize the Russian authorities for the death of an opposition journalist." Then there was Vitaly Tretyakov of Moskovskaya Gazeta, who theorized that Anna's American citizenship made her a humanitarian target for the Chechens and added, "a bigger gift to the enemies and opponents of Vladimir Putin and a bigger blow to his image could not possibly be imagined."

Shortly after these and numerous other similar editorials came out Russia's General Prosecutor, Yuri Chaika, came out with the utterly preposterous contention that Anna's murder could be explained by a zarubezhnaya versiya, or "foreign version," in which foreigners of some kind were to blame for the hit. This claim was credulously reported in papers and internet news sites all over Russia, and a kind of fairy tale about Politkovskaya's killing began to spread, a tale in which, aside from the "foreign version," there were three basic scenarios that might possibly explain the killing: Chechen terrorists, a plot against Vladimir Putin, or revenge on the part of police officials put in jail by Politkovskaya's reports.

This is another way you use the press in Russia, if you happen to control it. If you or one of your ministers comes out and says in the media that the murder was committed by "foreigners," or plotters against the president, that is also a way of announcing to your own that no other investigative scenarios need to be entertained. That's the way things are done over there. Of course, the most obvious suspects in Politkovskaya's killing -- the FSB, forces close to Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, and Putin himself -- they will never be investigated. When and if someone is arrested for Politkovskaya's killing, we can be fairly sure it will be a person or persons whose identity corresponds to one of the accepted "versions." And the most popular "version" being pimped by the lapdog media in Russia is the one which contends that Politkovskaya's death was of greatest benefit to the enemies of Vladimir Putin. It will be of no surprise to anyone when a political enemy of Putin is charged with ordering this murder.

In this way large chunks of the "relatively free" Moscow media have, revoltingly, turned the murder of one of Vladimir Putin's greatest enemies into a sympathy ploy for the same V.V. Putin. Some journalists even went so far as to shit on Politkovskaya as a person in their editorials, defame her reputation. That is another thing that is done over there. Someone like this dies, and there will be whispers in various quarters: she was an elitist anyway, she was unpatriotic, she drove a fancy car maybe, and she was, moreover, not particularly good-looking for a woman... not worth killing at all. This is part and parcel of a mentality that was developed over seventy-plus years of Soviet rule. When your neighbor disappears in the middle of the night, don't blame his captors, blame him; remember that he was a kulak who had a cow and windmill while you lay drunk in the gutter, or remember that he had been to Paris once, or was mourned a little too much when he died unexpectedly. Politkovskaya got plenty of that from her supposed colleagues in the Moscow media.

The worst of these was Maxim Sokolov of Izvestia, who appeared to take his editorial line straight from the Kremlin in a piece he wrote right after Politkovskaya's death. Sokolov's theory was that Kremlin would never kill Anna -- not because killing journalists is wrong, but because this particular journalist was too meager and unimportant a figure to be worth the trouble. "For two years already A.S. Politkovskaya has been at the far periphery of popular opinion," he wrote. "The level of recognition of her articles was practically nil," he added, sneeringly noting that such an unimportant person's death could hardly benefit the president.

Very soon after Sokolov's column, Putin said the following to a German newspaper: "I think, in connection with this, and one of our papers today put it correctly, that for the responsible powers in general and for the Chechen powers in particular her death had far more impact than her articles."

That's the kind of man Putin is. A woman is brutally murdered and one of his first thoughts is to shit on her work in the foreign media. He doesn't even have the shame to pretend that he cares about Anna Politkovskaya, doesn't even feel a need to pull the "Her death is a great loss" game even in Europe. Why? Because he clearly and correctly perceives that there will never be any repercussions in the West for any of this stuff. A hundred Russian journalists could end up with bullets in their brains and the leaders of the West still wouldn't cancel their Asian pajama parties with Putin. Not since he's become such a good capitalist and earned his way into the WTO, and proved himself to be an a very occasionally enthusiastic ally in the war on terrorism, although my memory fails me when I try to recall just exactly where he's ever been of any help to us.

Now we have this Litvinenko story, and the Russian authorities have already weighed in on that one. Litvienko claims that just prior to his illness he had received word from an old Italian source he calls "Mario" who claimed to have information about Politkovskaya's death, raising speculation that he had been poisoned to silence him. But this week we learned that that wasn't true. Early on Monday I saw that Sergei Ivanov, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), had announced that we can all relax now, because Russia had nothing to do with Litvinenko's poisoning. According to Ivanov, since 1959, when the Soviets assassinated Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bander, Russia "has not been involved with the physical liquidation of troublesome Russian persons." According to Ivanov, Litvinenko's poisoner should be looked for "among his circle in London, probably." Another zarubezhnaya versiya! Naturally, when an FSB agent defects to London and begins investigating the mysterious deaths of various Russian dissidents, the first place to look for his attackers, when he is poisoned, is among the British. Those people are animals! Anyway, the news that Russia is not responsible is a tremendous relief, one I am sure will be shared by the Maxim Sokolovs of the world and his colleagues for the rest of the week, or until Litvinenko's eyes fall out and he dies, anyway.

Incidentally, no matter how things look, no one really knows what happened to Anna Politkovskaya, or to Litvinenko, for that matter. There was a strange story reported in Politkovskaya's Novaya Gazeta a few weeks back, just after a former FSB commander, Movladi Baisarov, was shot in Moscow, ostensibly after pulling a grenade on Chechen police (police from the Russian-controlled Chechen region, that is) who came to arrest him. The story argues somewhat convincingly that the murders of Baisarov and Politkovskaya are connected, that both were targeted for execution by members of the police force of Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin's hand-picked bloodthirsty scumbag in Chechnya.

So it could have been Kadyrov. It could have been Kadyrov and a faction within the FSB acting independently of Putin for reasons unknown. It could have been the FSB without Kadyrov, trying to set Kadyrov up -- he used to be on the other side, after all, and the FSB types never liked him anyway. Then again, the source for the new Novaya Gazeta story, former Grozny mayor Bislan Gantamirov, is a thieving fuck who could be just about anywhere on the Russian-Chechen map of atrocities and corruption, depending on the time of day and his financial situation at that moment. So who knows. That's the thing about Russia -- there aren't many lists of contract murder suspects that are easy to narrow down. And Litvinenko? Sure, it could have been the FSB, trying to cover up the Politkovskaya business. But according to Litvinenko's own account his friend "Mario" came all the way to London just to show him an email with a list of suspects, something he could have sent via the internet. Was the FSB merely using the prospect of information about Politkovsksya to lure an old defector to his death? There are whispers about that, too, in certain untamed quarters of the Russian media landscape.

The thing is, we'll never find out. None of these mysteries in Russia ever get solved. In the best-case scenario, a couple of drifters from Dagestan will run a light in the Tekstillshiki district in the near future and wake up the next morning to find themselves unmasked as the murderers of Anna Politkovskaya. Then they'll contract tuberculosis or fall down a flight of steps while awaiting sentence in Lefortovo. Litvinenko will turn out to have accidentally put Thallium on his own toothbrush. No one will believe any of it, but it will mean these stories are formally over. And Vladimir Putin will be free to go to the next Asian summit. Where, after all, he has nothing but friends, who like to tell lies of their own.

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