Mr. Putin's Enemies

Friday, March 9, 2007

ANOTHER RUSSIAN journalist critical of the government of Vladimir Putin has died under mysterious circumstances. Ivan Safronov, a 51-year-old military specialist, had just returned to his apartment building after shopping for oranges last Friday when he fell from the window of a fourth-floor stairwell. Authorities quickly labeled his death a suicide, only to be contradicted by Mr. Safronov's colleagues at the newspaper Kommersant, who said that he had no reason to take his own life -- but that he had been preparing an explosive story disclosing plans by Russia to sell advanced missiles and fighter jets to Iran and Syria.

Normally it would be unwarranted to speculate that Mr. Putin's security services might have had something to do with the journalist's death -- or, for that matter, with the shooting of Russian specialist Paul Joyal outside his Prince George's County home March 1. But the instances of violence against journalists in Mr. Putin's Russia and of the brutal elimination of his critics both at home and abroad have become so common that it's impossible to explain them all as coincidences. Since the Russian president took office in 2000, 13 journalists have died in contract-style murders, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranks Russia as the third most deadly country in the world for reporters.

Mr. Safronov's death was preceded by the slaying in October of Anna Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of the war in Chechnya who was gunned down in her apartment building. The exiled Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was investigating Ms. Politkovskaya's death when he died of poisoning in December; British authorities have been unable to reach the two leading suspects in his death because they are being shielded by Mr. Putin's government. Mr. Joyal was shot in the groin days after appearing in a television documentary about Mr. Litvinenko. In it, he had said that the message to Kremlin critics was "no matter who you are, where you are, we will find you and we will silence you in the most horrible way possible."

We hope Prince George's police and the FBI will soon be able to determine who shot Mr. Joyal and why. It's hard to be optimistic that the case of Mr. Safronov will ever be cleared up, especially given that no one has been held accountable for any of the other murders of journalists in Russia. In the meantime, it's interesting to note that these strange events have coincided with a new effort by the Bush administration to reach out to Mr. Putin, following the Cold War-style diatribe he delivered at an international conference last month. Some blame Mr. Putin's ugly mood on the United States, which is said not to have done enough to ease Russian resentment over such initiatives as NATO expansion and missile defense. Perhaps so; but, then, what explains why so many Russian critics of Mr. Putin are dying?


© 2007 The Washington Post Company