On Saturday, the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building as she unloaded groceries. Politkovskaya had spent the last seven years exposing the abuses of the Russian military and its proxies in the war against separatists in Chechnya. When she was shot, she was preparing a report that would implicate the Russian-appointed President of Chechnya in sanctioning torture of Chechnyan separatists. Politkovskaya had such a high profile in Russia that when she got sick while trying to fly to the scene of the infamous Beslan school massacre in 2004 to cover it, in the words of the BBC, “some suspected a plot to incapacitate her.” The Philadelphia Inquirer called her “the Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh of Russian journalism rolled into one.” Russian prosecutors have already said that they believe her death may be linked to her investigative reporting.
This morning, we have reports of President Putin’s response to the murder. You can almost smell the smirk. Speaking in the east German city of Dresden, where he is trying to push German businesses to buy Russian energy (and where, as Reuters notes, he was stationed as a KGB officer in the mid-1980s), Putin told reporters that Politkovskaya had only “minimal influence” on Russian political life. There is a pattern emerging here. Andrei Kozlov, a central banker and anti-corruption crusader, and Enver Ziganshin, an oil executive at the center of a dispute with the Russian government, have both been killed in what The New York Times called “mob-style” killings in the past ten days. And Putin has immersed his country in an obscure game of brinksmanship with the neighboring government of Georgia, which in 2004 elected a pro-Western government. Putin’s government has assembled lists of Georgian schoolchildren for deportation. Rioting Russian mobs have attacked and burned the stores of Georgian shopkeepers. Georgia’s foreign minister has called the moves “ethnic cleansing.” This is the man who gained President Bush’s confidence after the American looked “into his heart and soul” and found a “good” man.
No one yet knows who killed Anna Politkovskaya. But it is hard to look at Putin’s government right now with anything other than deep skepticism. The British writer Alex Hollowell wrote on Monday that, “It is time to grasp that we are sharing a continent with a very large tyranny.” It is also a reminder that terrorists don’t just come in the shape of small cells of isolated radicals, but also in the sometimes-scarier forms of governments.