It is time to end the fiction that President Vladimir Putin’s “dictatorship of law has made post-communist Russia any less lawless. The murder of Anna Politkovskaya, one of Russia’s bravest and best journalists, a woman who dared to expose the brutal murders committed by Russian troops in Chechnya, is final proof that Putin has delivered nothing more than a run of the mill dictatorship with the usual contempt for law.
This recognition is a timely one for the world to make, particularly Europe. Germany’s foreign ministry is preparing a policy on Russian-German relations that will enshrine indifference to Putin’s lawlessness as being in the national interest of the most powerful member of the European Union. But indifference becomes appeasement when it encourages Putin to pursue his lawless ways in the international arena, as in his current campaign to strangle Georgia’s economy.
The killing of Politkovskaya has incited an eerie sense of déjà vu: just as in the KGB’s heyday, people simply disappear in Putin’s Russia. Politkovskaya’s is the third politically tinged killing in three weeks. Enver Ziganshin, the chief engineer of BP Russia, was shot to death in Irkutsk on September 30. Andrei Kozlov, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who was leading a campaign against financial fraud, was assassinated on September 14.
The fact that Russia’s Prosecutor, General Yuri Chaika, took over the investigation into Politkovskaya’s killing, as he did with the murder of Kozlov, doesn’t inspire hope, as such senior level involvement would in any real democracy. In fact, involvement of the highest level of Russia’s government is almost a guarantee that the killers will never be found.
Politkovskaya’s murder is a particularly grim augury when you consider that she was a powerful critic of Russia’s president. In her articles for one of the few remaining independent papers in Moscow, Novaya Gazeta, and in her books “Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy and “A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya, Politkovskaya wrote of the vanishing freedoms that are the signature characteristic of Putin’s presidency. As shown by the exile of the former media tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinky, and the imprisonment of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, three fates await Putin’s enemies: exile, imprisonment, or the grave.
I am not accusing Putin’s government of the contract killing of Politkovskaya. After all, as a campaigning investigative journalist she made many people angry besides Putin, not least the current Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, whom she accused of a policy of kidnapping for ransom. But even if Vladimir Putin’s associates had nothing to do with Politkovskaya being gunned down in an elevator of her apartment building in the center of Moscow, his contempt for law created the climate in which the murder was carried out. Like the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett in his Canterbury Cathedral many centuries ago, the crime was committed in the clear belief that it would please the king.
Given what Politkovskaya represented – the responsibility of a democratic press to question the Kremlin and its policies – the government should have made certain that nothing bad happened to her. Putin’s Russia has already lost 12 leading journalists to murder in the past six years. None of those crimes has been solved, which would not be the case if Putin’s “dictatorship of law was anything more than a public relations strategy.
The six-year period since Vladimir Putin arrived in the Kremlin has been a time of deeply conflicting signals. On one hand, the world sees a young, educated leader pledging to modernize Russia, particularly in terms of bringing its law enforcement and judicial practices into line with international norms. On the other, the president watches in silence while his ex-colleagues in Russia’s FSB security service (the former KGB) provide no security to those murdered, and launch a series of notorious espionage cases against journalists, scientists, and environmental activists. These “neo-spies include journalist Gregory Pasko, arms control expert Igor Sutyagin, diplomat Valentin Moiseyev, physicist Valentin Danilov, and others.
The supposedly civilizing influence of being a Western partner – chairing a Group of Eight summit in Saint Petersburg for example – seems to have been lost on Putin’s Kremlin cabal. Once again exposure to Western values has delivered another Potemkin village: Russia presents a façade of laws and democratic institutions, but behind that cardboard surface the same arbitrary brutes rule.
The danger for the world is that Putin’s lawlessness is being exported. Across Russia’s “near abroad, a form of criminalized diplomacy is taking root. Look at Putin’s attempt to rig Ukraine’s previous presidential election, and the on-again-off-again criminal charges brought against the opposition leader Yuliya Tymoshenko. Look at the rogue breakaway regions in Moldova and Georgia that exist only because of the Kremlin’s backing. Look at how the Kremlin seeks to blackmail its neighbors by threatening their energy supplies.
Every policeman knows that when you ignore criminal behavior, criminals grow bolder. It is past time for the world to recognize Vladimir Putin for what he is: a man who is taking Russia back into the shadows. So the world must now ponder that old Latin maxim: qui tacet consentere videtur, silence means consent, and ask itself if it is wise to quietly consent to Putin’s construction of a lawless energy superpower.
Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at New School University and is the author of a forthcoming book on Vladimir Nabokov. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).