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Sunday Telegraph: Cross Putin and die

President Putin of Russia

(Since Putin became President, 13 journalists have been murdered)

By Olga Craig
(Filed: 15/10/2006)

Late on Thursday night, Dimitri Zakayev hurriedly moved his wife and four daughters from their Moscow home to a rented dacha deep in the heart of the outlying countryside. So sudden was the family’s flit that the children’s bicycles, their computers and Zakayev’s beloved library of books, too bulky to pack in a small, hired truck, had to be left behind.
 
The day before, Zakayev had unexpectedly resigned from his job as a journalist, pleading with his employers, a small, biweekly newspaper circulating in central Moscow, to keep his departure a secret for as long as possible. “Please, don’t tell anyone, especially not the authorities, until you have to,” he begged them.

“I admit I am scared,” he says. “I’m no hero, I don’t have Anna’s zealous, crusading commitment to revealing the truth. I’m a family man who wants to live to see my children grow. To be honest, I think what I did, in retrospect, was foolish. I was chasing glory. Anna’s murder made me realise that, in Moscow, writing about the wrong things can get you shot.”

The family will eventually leave Russia for an uncertain future: forced out by Zakayev’s fear that, like fellow Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, his bullet-riddled body will be found slumped in a doorway, the victim of an assassination.

He is wise to be worried. Ten days ago, under a picture byline, he wrote an editorial accusing President Vladimir Putin of the “ethnic cleansing” of Russia’s Georgians. “Hundreds of families are cowering in fear, waiting for the FSB [successors to the KGB] to knock on their door,” he wrote. “Will we see Georgia becoming the new Chechnya? Will we witness the disappearance of another 5,000 innocent citizens as has happened there?”

advertisementThe 54-year-old’s article was in response to the tough line taken by the Kremlin after four Russian officers, allegedly from military intelligence, were detained and then expelled from the former Soviet republic earlier this month. In retaliation, Putin imposed an economic embargo against Georgia, seized scores of Georgian-owned companies and deported 400 of its citizens.

Now Zakayev is convinced that someone, most probably a hired hitman with links to the Kremlin, is already stalking his movements. After the murder last weekend of Anna Politkovskaya, 48, an award-winning investigative reporter and the mother of two young children, there is a distinct possibility that Zakayev (not his real name) is right.

When Politkovskaya was gunned down in the lift of her apartment block in Lesnaya Street in central Moscow, she became the 13th Russian journalist to be murdered for daring to criticise President Putin and his policies since he came to power in 2000. The investigative journalist’s “crime” had been a long and relentless campaign, often, it has to be said, to the exasperation of even her editor, exposing corruption in the Russian army and its brutal reign of terror in Chechnya.

In particular, she had singled out Ramzam Kadyrov, Putin’s “puppet” prime minister in Chechnya, scathingly describing him as “morally corrupt” and “as soiled as Putin’s own regime”. He was, she said more than once, “planning to kill her”.

It was fighting talk, and Politkovskaya knew the reality of the risks she was taking. Two years ago, en route to cover the Beslan school siege (which Putin had sought to conceal for as long as possible from the Russian public), she had to be taken off the aeroplane and rushed to hospital after drinking a cup of poisoned tea. Mysteriously, the tea cup disappeared before it could be analysed. On another occasion, after a series of articles and two books revealing the atrocities being committed in Russia’s name, FSB agents kidnapped her, held her captive in a 20ft deep pit for three days, and threatened her with rape and murder. Last year, after yet another anti-Putin article, she received so many death threats that she was forced to flee to Vienna for several months.

What probably sealed Politkovskaya’s fate was her final, scorching report of the brutal torture meted out to young Chechens by Russian-backed forces in the northern Caucasus. Published, in part, posthumously, it chronicled the horrific experiences of a young man, Beslan Gadaev, “fitted up” as a murderer. “They began to administer electric shocks while they beat me with a rubber truncheon,” he told her. “I don’t know how long it lasted but I started to lose consciousness due to the pain.” Although Gadaev repeatedly told his tormentors that he had nothing to “confess”, they tortured him unremittingly. To end his agony, the young man “admitted” murders and was forced to swear that his injuries were the result of an escape attempt.

Politkovskaya never finished her article. Two days after she wrote the opening paragraphs, she was shot twice in the heart, once in the arm and once in the head with a 9.9 Markarov pistol, the Russian hitman’s weapon of choice. Her assassin, a young man in a baseball cap, was captured on CCTV. But no one in Russia, least of all its press corps, seriously believes he will ever be caught.

Since Politkovskaya’s assassination, the Committee to Protect Journalists has revealed that Russia has now become the third most dangerous place to work in the world: only in Iraq and Algeria have more reporters been murdered. What is perhaps most chilling, however, is that not one of the 13 murders of journalists that have occurred since Putin became president has been solved.

When he first came to power it was all so different. Within days of his appointment, he declared: “Our press is free and forever will be.” It was just one among many pledges he made. His promise to turn around the Russian economy, virtually bankrupted by Boris Yeltsin, has certainly been fulfilled. Russia, now the chief source of energy for much of Europe, is awash with oil and gas money. But instead of purposefully following the path to democracy, Putin has increasingly reasserted the centralised Kremlin control of the Soviet era. And nowhere has that been more evident than in his treatment of the media.

When the Kursk submarine sank in the Barents Sea on August 12, 2000, four months after Putin came to power, he was shocked by the media outrage over the Russian navy’s attempts to cover up its incompetence. In private, Putin vowed to bring the media to heel.

Retribution was swift. At first, those in the media who did not peddle Putin’s line merely found themselves unemployed. Although at the time the Kremlin no longer ran the television stations and newspapers, its power was still sufficient to ensure obedience. Leonid Parfyonov, Russia’s Jeremy Paxman, was sacked when his television programme interviewed the widow of a Chechen who claimed her husband had been murdered by Russian agents. Similarly, Raf Shakirov, who edited Izvestia, Russia’s oldest daily newspaper, was sacked for picturing the victims of the Beslan school siege. Before long, Putin had brought all the mainstream television stations and the majority of the newspapers back under the ownership of the Kremlin or of state-controlled entities such as Gazprom, Russia’s £55 billion, state-owned gas monopoly that serves as an arm of Kremlin propaganda.

Soon sackings were not enough. In 2001, the murders began. Eduard Markevich, the editor and publisher of the newspaper Novy Reft, known for its strident criticism of local officials, was shot in the back. Two years later, Valery Ivanov, editor-in-chief of Tolyatinskoye Obozreniye, was shot in the head eight times after his newspaper exposed controversial business deals linked to organised crime and government corruption. His colleague, Alexei Sidorov, took over as editor and, 18 months later, he too was killed – stabbed several times with an ice-pick and left to die.

Perhaps the most notorious murder, however, was that of Paul Khlebnikov, the editor of the Russian edition of the US business magazine Forbes. His punishment for exposing the wealth of Russia’s business elite was a bullet in the back of the head.

While no one has ever proffered any evidence that directly links Putin to the murders, few believe they were anything other than Kremlin-inspired. “It’s true that Anna was on at least six lists of ‘enemies of the state’ placed on the internet by ultra-nationalists,” says Vladimir Pribylovsky, a leading Russian journalist who was sacked from the NTV channel for lampooning the president in his programme Kukli, the Russian equivalent of Spitting Image. “On one of the lists the words ‘for liquidation’ were next to her name.

“Naturally, no one believes that Putin sat in his office and said to two thugs, ‘I want Politkovskaya dead,’ ” he concedes. “But the fact is that he has created the kind of country where it is possible to kill a journalist — maybe just to please him — and then feel uncomfortable afterwards.”

Since Politkovskaya’s death, Putin has sought to play down the effects of her investigative reporting, claiming she had “minimal influence on political life in Russia”. He has also promised that “all necessary efforts will be made for an objective investigation into the tragic death”. That has done little to allay the fears of her fellow reporters, however. “Russian journalism is dead,” says Yevgenia Albats, a friend of Politkovskaya, pessimistically. She is a former investigative reporter on security issues who switched professions to teaching after her name appeared on several death lists. “Death threats are part of the job for an investigative journalist. These days, it’s impossible to investigate anything to do with the state, or any businesses connected with the state. You can’t get information and, if you do, who is going to publish it?

“I don’t know who killed Anna. But I do know that anyone responding to the nationalistic rhetoric coming down from the Kremlin would be capable of killing her.”

This weekend, at the offices of Novaya Gazeta, for which Politkovskaya worked, deputy editor Vitaly Yaroshevsky insists the newspaper will continue to publish controversial and crusading articles. “The main difference in the position of journalists today, compared to six years ago, is that now they get killed more often,” he says. “The pressure on the free press here is unprecedented: there are very few centres of resistance left. If we go on resisting and refuse to give up, well, likely, the killers will come again.”

It is just that chilling prophecy that has prompted Zakayev to flee. “If you belong to the independent press, the price of dissent is death,” he says. “I am not that brave.”

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