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zaxi thoughts: politkovskaya

Why did this cover-up take so long?

And what a sad question to greet the arrest of 10 current and former FSB and other agents in the October 2006 slaying of the brave reporter Anna Politkovskaya. Need we ask? The shooting was masterminded from abroad by people who want to restore “the old system of order when everything is decided by money and the oligarchs.”

Prosecutor General Yury Chaika’s words should be read to mean that President Vladimir Putin is lucky to still be alive. Putin was the actual target – not the journalist who had just returned from Chechnya with footage of the Kremlin’s official henchman there torturing some detained locals for dinner party entertainment.

One irritating point to get out of the way: Why use kindergarten code when accusing London exile Boris Berezovsky of murder? Does the Kremlin believe that not mentioning Berezovsky by name somehow diffuses the weight and responsibility of the charge? Putin’s FSB entourage cannot expect to play this game forever – things are actually reaching court. So is it accusing Berezovsky of orchestrating the murder or will there be a mock trial against phantom foreign enemies of the Russian state? Does it fear actually charging Berezovsky because of how it looks in the West – or because the required tangible proof could unravel and lead to the real culprits?

It matters little. The case was preordained to end exactly like this – with Chaika parroting the words Putin first uttered three day after Politkovskaya’s death. Putin came out of an ugly silence to tell the US president and the German chancellor – and eventually the Russian people – that “the level of her influence on Russia was very minor.”

This remarkable phrase was Putin’s way of stepping out of the shadow of suspicion immediately cast by Politkovskaya’s grave. The Russian president and former agent – who once famously said “there is no such thing as a former chekist” in reference to the Bolshevik’s first notorious security force – was an immediate suspect in Western eyes. He simply told George W. Bush and Angela Merkel that Politkovskaya was too irrelevant domestically for him to kill.

Putin pointed West. And Chaika pointed West. An explanation that in the words of the Stratfor global intelligence unit “sanitizes Putin.” So why did it take 10 months?

First of course were those pesky FSB agents who got in the way. One problem for Putin was that Politkovskaya’s Novaya Gazeta was conducting a parallel investigation. The paper that dared was not about to let its most intrepid reporter’s ashes be brushed under the rug. It found some curious leads. A few of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s executioners came into focus. As did the FSB and some disgruntled military intelligence officers who served in Chechnya. The paper was due to report its findings in an issue marking the one-year anniversary of the crime – one whose official investigation would have been noted by even the Russian press to have gone nowhere.

But Chaika lifted the potential FSB culprits and turned them into agents of Berezovsky. A few bad apples in Russia’s mist that grew rotten under foreign influence. Even this took 10 months to produce. The FSB does not give up its own.

The head of Russia’s drug control agency identified the KGB/FSB mantra in a recent Russian article that was quoted in this week’s The Economist: “We must understand that we are one whole. History has ruled that the weight of supporting the Russian state should fall on our shoulders. I believe in our ability to put aside everything petty and to remain faithful to our oath when we feel danger.”

Does Putin hand his presidency to anyone but an FSB agent in such a climate? What hope does Politkovskaya's memory have?

It is fairly easy to assume that some of the detainees Chaika mentioned were about to be identified by Novaya Gazeta. But few people at the paper remotely believe that these 10 – and some mystery Chechen crime boss in their mist – are seriously involved in the affair. The paper’s editor told The New York Times the official version was “a nightmare.”

Yet these arrests and the accompanying finger-pointing at Berezovsky do far more than cover up the elimination of Putin’s fiercest critic in Russia’s press. They also tighten the grip of the siege mentality that has been suffocating Russia ahead of elections. Any Western thought is not simply foreign but dangerous to the Russian core – to Putin and his people. It is conniving and murderous.

The Russian foreign ministry said as much in a statement published while Chaika was debriefing Putin. It accused Russia’s opposition – which the state media now identifies as operating on Western coin – of “overstepping the bounds of elementary ethics” by giving foreigners testimony of Russia’s wrongs. “Where does this odd and humiliating desire to sacrifice one’s country’s interests for personal gain come from?” Could it be – the foreign ministry seems to be asking – capitalist greed for dollar donations?

Alas this opposition – or at least the small segment of it represented by Berezovsky – has done little to save its grace. It bickers and backbites where Politkovskaya wrote courageous exposes of Russia’s most notorious crimes while personally helping those she wrote about in Chechnya – saving some from certain death and others from endless torture in prison.

Berezovsky has turned into an even more schizophrenic egomaniac. And his ravings not only discredit the opposition but also make it theoretically possible that he just might have hatched an odious plot to discredit Putin. His Russian business foes once made graveyard fodder and notorious killers still lounge at his Mayfair estate. To use a double negative now being exploited by the Kremlin – zaxi does not know for sure that Berezovsky did not arrange this murder to harm Putin.

But as the insightful US political scientist Ira Straus observes: this is “the Syrian defense.” Another anti-Syrian figure is assassinated in Lebanon. Damascus charges that anti-Syrian forces in Lebanon killed one of their own to embarrass Syria in world opinion. “It is as if they are copying from Putin’s book – or vice versa.”

The UN Security Council for one is not buying the Syrian defense. Should it buy Putin's?