It is a small victory for Russia’s beleaguered human rights activists and journalists critical of government authorities.
Russian police arrested two men last week for the shocking murder in January of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, 34, and journalist Anastasia Baburova, 25. On a busy Moscow street not far from the Kremlin, a man wearing a mask and holding a silencer-equipped pistol gunned both down in broad daylight after they had left a press conference. To decent Russian citizens, the arrests represent a minor triumph since they so rarely happen in murder cases involving journalists and human rights activists.
Tragically, such killings occur with alarming frequency in Russia. Barburova’s untimely death increased to 15 the number of journalists murdered since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000. Another 30 were killed during the tumultuous 1990s after the Soviet Union’s demise. And even more tragic for Russian civil society, the convictions for this bloody harvest could probably be counted on one hand.
The first conviction for a journalist killing during Putin’s presidency did not occur until 2007. The case involved anti-corruption journalist Igor Domnikov, who was killed with hammer blows to the head outside his Moscow apartment.
But as is often the case in countries with weak justice systems, only the crime’s minor players were convicted. The murder’s mastermind, a corrupt former provincial deputy governor, walked away free. The deputy governor was never charged and appeared in the courtroom as a witness, saying he had only hired the assassins to “talk” to Domnikov.
The most famous unsolved murder case involving a Russian journalist is that of Anna Politkovskaya, a fierce Putin critic, who was fatally shot in her apartment building in October, 2007. The murder of the internationally renowned Politkovskaya, a recipient of several prestigious awards for her exposure of human rights crimes in Chechnya, outraged the West, straining relations with Moscow. The outrage was such that in a telephone conversation with Putin, former President George Bush was prompted to ask for a “vigorous and thorough investigation” of the murder.
The Politkovskaya case resurfaced in the news last September. Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the investigation to be merged with a search for the three men behind the killing. Three lesser figures accused of preparing the shooting were acquitted last February but later had their acquittal overturned. It was Politkovskaya’s two adult children, Vera and Ilya, who had pushed for the investigation to be broadened, since, as happened in the Domnikov case, they did not want the masterminds to go free.
Despite the Politkovskaya children’s legal victory, though, there is always a concern in Russia that the government will not vigorously and aggressively investigate a case if it leads back to people in power. At a press conference after February’s acquittals, Vera and Ilya Politkovskaya expressed this fear, directly accusing authorities of “showing a complete lack of interest in solving the murder of our mother.
“The case has been put at the mercy of political and departmental intrigues and this means, in essence, that the true killers are being protected,” they said.
Russian columnist Yulia Latynina indicates why the Kremlin is so remiss in solving journalist murders. Citing the Politkovskaya case, she states the authorities only regard a criminal case as important when the crime has been committed against Russia’s ruling class. Latynina writes: “It seems the prosecutor general isn’t interested in any other types of crime.”
The security situation for journalists in Russia is definitely dismal. Three years ago, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists bestowed upon Russia the dubious distinction of being the third most dangerous place in the world for journalists behind only Iraq and Algeria. At that time, though, Iraq and Algeria were embroiled in civil conflicts, while Russia’s killings were occurring in peacetime.
Part of the blame for this tragedy rests with Vladimir Putin. When Putin was elected president in 2000, he began a clampdown on Russia’s media, imposing a form of state control over much of it, especially television stations. A controlled media, however, only leads away from democracy and towards a lawless state.
The Russian media had been relatively free and vibrant in the 1990s, but reporting on such topics as the Chechnya war, corruption and the state of the Russian military was too accurate for Putin’s liking. Good journalism, in the former KGB man’s view, was destabilizing and anti-state.
The nature of Russia’s government is also to blame for preventing the development of a free press. After Putin abandoned Russia’s fledging democracy, an authoritarian regime was erected composed of the same, Soviet-style political thugs but only without the communist ideology.
Like in the former Soviet Union, these new authoritarians have created a climate of hatred for journalists that allows their murderers to operate almost with impunity, as indicated by their abysmal conviction rate. Besides the low conviction rate, the politicians’ silence about journalist and human rights activist killings also sends the violent and criminal opponents of freedom of thought and expression the wrong message.
Russian newspapers report the suspects’ motive in the Markelov killing was revenge. The alleged triggerman, Nikita Tikhonov, was angry that Markelov had put several of his friends in jail three years earlier for stabbing to death an anti-fascist activist. One report states Tikhonov was a member of the ultra-nationalist group, United Brigade-88.
Consistent with their decent, brave characters and commitment to truth and integrity, Baburova was her paper’s expert on such Russian hate groups, while Markelov had defended people against them. And while it was a terrible crime, damaging to Russian society, that their careers ended prematurely in coffins, it would now be a worse one if the small victory of their murderers’ arrest is allowed to turn into a defeat.