Russia's Murder Mystery

Friday, August 31, 2007

THIRTEEN journalists have been killed in Russia since Vladimir Putin became president seven years ago. Not one of their cases has been solved. So the announcement Monday that 10 people had been arrested for involvement in the murder of reporter Anna Politkovskaya last October represents a kind of progress. Unfortunately, Mr. Putin's government hasn't stopped its cynical attempt to politicize the case -- or to protect those who sponsored the slaying.

That there have been arrests, including those of current and former police officers and a lieutenant colonel in the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, is probably due to Ms. Politkovskaya's newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. This small, independent organization courageously conducted its own investigation of her murder and shared its findings with police. In an editorial published Tuesday, the paper's editors said Novaya Gazeta had identified those arrested as suspects and described them as members of two criminal gangs that cooperated with each other. Novaya Gazeta said it concurs with police that the gangs were hired to kill Ms. Politkovskaya, who was famous in Russia and in the West for her incandescent reporting on the war in Chechnya, including the exposure of crimes committed by Russian and allied Chechen forces. The hit job "was expensive," Novaya Gazeta said.

Where the newspaper and Russian authorities part ways is on who might have ordered and paid for the murder. At a news conference, Mr. Putin's chief prosecutor claimed that conspirators based outside Russia were responsible, a theory first floated by the president himself days after the event. The prosecutor didn't name the suspect he obviously had in mind; that was left to former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi, who held his own news conference to say that Boris Berezovsky, the former tycoon exiled in London, was responsible. The seriousness of that charge can be deduced from the fact that Mr. Lugovoi is Scotland Yard's prime suspect in the murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London a month after Ms. Politkovskaya's slaying. Mr. Putin has been shielding Mr. Lugovoi and an alleged accomplice from British prosecution; his propagandists claim that Mr. Berezovsky is also behind the London assassination.

Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, said repeatedly this week that there is no basis for the government's claim of foreign sponsorship of Ms. Politkovskaya's killing. Rather, his paper suggested, Mr. Putin probably intends to use the lie that foreigners are sponsoring deadly plots against Russia as a theme in a domestic political campaign before parliamentary elections this year. Blaming an international conspiracy -- Mr. Berezovsky happens to be Jewish -- also will have the effect of shielding those who had the money and clout to hire Chechen gangsters and a senior FSB officer to kill the journalist. There's no public evidence that Mr. Putin or his associates ordered the killing of Ms. Politkovskaya, Mr. Litvinenko, or other journalists and critics who have troubled the regime. It's clear, however, that they don't want their cases to be solved.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company