The Darkness Spreading Over Russia

By Carl Gershman
Special to
Saturday, October 21, 2006; 12:00 AM

Nothing that has happened since the contract-style murder on October 7 of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya shakes the suspicion that this heinous act was arranged by people tied to the Kremlin, which despised her relentless reporting about the brutal war in Chechnya. If Putin's callous dismissal of Politkovskaya as an "extremely insignificant" writer whose work nonetheless damaged Russia's reputation was not enough, the acts of the Russian authorities since the murder all point ominously to an escalation of attacks on human rights defenders and critics of Russian policies in Chechnya.

A report just released by Human Rights First lists a number of these acts: Death threats against Lidia Yusopova, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on human rights in Chechnya; news reports over state-controlled television tying Timur Aliev, the editor of the newspaper "Chechen Society," to the terrorist recently killed terrorist Shamil Basayev, thus placing his life in danger; the violent dispersal in Nazran, Ingushetia, of a peaceful vigil memorializing Politkovskaya; and the investigation and threatened closure of the Nazran-based NGO Mashr, which supports relatives of those who have "disappeared" in the conflict.

In addition, the court in Nizhny Novgorod last week ordered the closure of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (RCFS), the leading Russian NGO reporting on human rights violations in Chechnya. The group, which has long been a target of the Russian authorities, has been charged with violating a new law curtailing NGOs for not dismissing its director, Stanislav Dmitrievsky, who was convicted last February of "inciting ethnic hatred." Under the law, the group is also required to condemn him for "extremist activity" or else it is also deemed "extremist" and therefore subject to closure.

The extremist charge against Dmitrievsky involves his publication in 2004 in the RCFS newspaper "Human Rights Defense" of two articles by Chechen leaders, one of them an appeal to the European Parliament to hold Russia responsible for genocide in Chechnya. The author of this article was Aslan Maskhadov, who had been elected President of Chechnya in 1997 following the settlement of the first Chechen war.

In one of her dispatches from Chechnya, Politkovskaya described Maskhadov as the leader of Chechen "Westernizers," meaning Chechens who "mostly look hopefully toward Europe," seeking both to adapt European laws to their society and to appeal their case against Russia before the Council of Europe and other Western institutions. She distinguished Maskhadov from Basayev, the leader of the "Easternizers" and the main Chechen advocate of militant Islam.

It was Basayev who was responsible for seizing hostages at a Beslan school in September 2004 and, two years earlier, at a Moscow theater, acts that led Maskhadov to declare that he should be tried before an international tribunal. And it was Maskhadov who announced a unilateral ceasefire early last year, an action that was ignored by the international community and welcomed only by Russia's small community of human rights defenders. The response of the Russian government was to kill Maskhadov on March 8, 2005, even as the ceasefire still held, thereby eliminating any possibility of a negotiated end to the conflict.

By treating all Chechens as terrorists and Islamic militants, and by silencing all criticism of its policies, the Russian government is helping to bring about what it most fears, which is the spread of Islamic radicalism throughout the seven republics of the North Caucasus region. Saner heads among the Russian leadership are aware of this danger, as evidenced by two reports prepared by the office of Dmitri Kozak, Putin's plenipotentiary representative in the Southern Federal District. The reports link the spread of Islamic extremism in the region to official corruption and impunity, pervasive crime, and abnormally high levels (even by Russian standards) of poverty and unemployment.

Most worrisome to the authorities is the possibility that the radicalization of the Muslim population could spread from the North Caucasus to the Volga Muslim republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, bringing to the Russian interior the growing polarization between Islamic militancy and rising Russian nationalism. Russian anxieties are being fed not just by the widening war in the Caucasus but by the declining population of ethnic Russians, whose birth-rate is far below that of Russian Muslims. Such conditions will only increase the appeal of Russian fascism, which now looms realistically in Russia's future.

In this context, the idea that the Russian authorities would be targeting liberal journalists and human rights activists as enemies who need to be silenced should be of the utmost concern to the United States and Europe, which still seem to regard Russia as a responsible partner. With Anna Politkovskaya's killing a light went out, and with the rising crackdown on dissidents that is reminiscent of the Soviet period, a darkness is now spreading over Russia. Politkovskaya spoke of Chechnya as "a small corner of hell" and gave her life trying to expose evil deeds there. Despite growing repression, there are still people in Russia who are trying to avert a looming disaster. We would be kidding ourselves to think that we don't have a stake in their survival. 

Carl Gershman is president of The National Endowment for Democracy.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company