Murder in Moscow
Vice President Joseph Biden has told the Europeans that the new administration wishes to "reset" relations with Vladmir Putin's Russia. But the January 19 slaying of two dissidents, 34-year-old human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalism student Anastasia Baburova, 25, on a Moscow street is one of several recent reminders that Americans cannot be comfortable in Putin's embrace.
Markelov, head of the Institute for the Supremacy of Law, may well have been murdered as a result of the release from custody, one week before, of Russian army colonel Yuri Budanov, who had been sent to prison for crimes he committed while serving in Chechnya. Markelov had been crucial to Budanov's 2003 conviction in the kidnapping, torture, multiple sexual assault, and murder of an 18-year-old Chechen girl, Elza Kheda Kungaeva. Budanov, although he admitted his guilt and was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, had benefited from an early release.
On the day he perished, Markelov delivered a statement to the press. Representing the family of the Chechen female victim, he accused the Russian authorities of improperly arranging for Budanov to be let go. He then walked to a metro station near the Kremlin with Baburova. The killer, wearing a ski mask, approached from behind and shot Markelov in the back of the head. Baburova pursued the shooter, who turned and fired into her forehead. She died several hours later.
Anticipating her graduation from journalism school, Baburova was working for the daily Novaya Gazeta, which has employed a distinguished roster of liquidated investigative journalists. Novaya Gazeta is co-owned by Alexander Lebedev, an ex-KGB official and billionaire turned political reformer, who purchased the ailing London Evening Standard on January 21, only two days after Baburova's death.
As the largest individual shareholder in Novaya Gazeta--he owns 39 percent--Lebedev is responsible for a publication that has experienced the high-profile killing of several of the country's leading reporters. Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in the elevator of her apartment building in 2006, was his top staffer; she too had exposed atrocities in Chechnya, and Markelov was her lawyer. Igor Domnikov was killed in a brutal beating in 2000. His colleague Yury Shchekochikhin was poisoned in 2003.
Indeed, the poison cabinet seems to have become a favored anti-dissident weapon of the Russian state, as it was under Stalin. Politkovskaya herself was poisoned (though not fatally) in 2004 when she tried to travel to Beslan during the hostage crisis there. And less than two months after her eventual murder, Alexander Litvinenko, another former KGB agent critical of the Putin regime, was killed in a highly unusual poisoning in London.
In the aftermath of the Markelov-Baburov assassinations, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Lebedev, perhaps spurred by his KGB experiences, had announced the intention of Novaya Gazeta journalists to petition to arm themselves if necessary. Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov denounced the Russian government for its inability to protect the press and asserted, "We have three options. The first one--to leave and turn off the lights. ... The second--to stop writing about the special services, corruption, drugs, fascists; to stop investigating the crimes of the powerful... The third option is to somehow defend ourselves."
Russian political life has increasingly assumed a pogrom atmosphere. Markelov had extended his investigation of human rights violations from Chechnya to the central Russian republic of Bashkortostan, which has a Turkic Muslim majority, but has not been the scene of Chechen-style rebellion against Russian rule. At the end of 2004, local police beat up to 1,000 people in Bashkortostan over a period of four days. Markelov had warned against "the spread of the Chechnya syndrome throughout other regions of Russia" and exposed the existence of a secret "order number 870" issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in 2003, which authorized the police to declare states of emergency without informing the public and to follow them up with repressive actions.
One of his closest friends, an academic named Vladislav Bugera, described Markelov as a perhaps naïve product of the old Soviet way of life. Writing in the online periodical Johnson's Russia List, Bugera called the dead lawyer a "socialist and an internationalist" whose many causes included an independent labor union, but whose socialism was "moderate ... and reformist. ... He was a reliable person. You could always be sure of him. He is my hero."
Needless to say, a return to socialist ideals would stand no chance of protecting human rights from state abuse. Russia has been through its dark eras of internal strife and compulsory social experiment; Putinism, now aggravated by the global economic crisis, represents an attempt to revive aspects of both. The staggering challenge before Russian supporters of democracy is to find a way to construct a new and unburdened system of individual rights, secured by due process. Russian democrats and those abroad who would help them can ill afford to look away from the blood of Russian lawyers and journalists shed in the street.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.