AP featured image
People rally holding portraits of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya in downtown Moscow Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009. Hundreds of people rallied Wednesday on the third anniversary of the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, calling on the authorities to find and punish the killers of journalists and human rights activists in Russia. Russian politician Grigory Yavlinskyis at left.(AP Photo/Anna Shevelyova)

In part 1 of this series on Putin’s “tactics,” I looked at the apartment building bombings, the assassination of a journalist, Paul Klebnikov, and a potential political rival.  Next, we look at the case of Anna Politkovskaya- a case that drew international attention.

Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist and human rights activist in Russia and a general thorn in the side of Putin.  In 2004 while traveling to Beslan to cover the siege of the school there, she became ill after drinking tea as it is suspected she was the victim of a poisoning attempt, although never proven.  Some of her supporters pointed the finger at the FSB.  The following year while attending a conference of journalists in Vienna, she outlined that many of her contacts for her stories received death threats and she chronicled a threat of rape against her and the fact she was exposed to her mock execution after being captured by Russian military personnel in Chechnya where she was covering the war.  She became a staunch Putin critic.

She later confided in a former FSB official, who had defected to London, Alexander Litivenko, that there were death threats directed at her.  Surmising they were coming from operatives in or for the FSB, he suggested she leave Russia immediately for her safety.  He also said that former presidential candidate Irina Hakamada had also warned her to leave the country, but Hakamada  said the warning was of a general nature.  It was also reported that Litivenko likely learned of the Hakamada warning from Boris Berezkovsky who had learned that Putin had personally warned journalists that their lives were in danger if they reported on the apartment building bombings. 

On October 7, 2006 Politkovskaya was found dead in the elevator of her apartment building, the victim of four gunshot wounds, including one in her head at close range.  A week before her death, she gave a radio interview about her recent work in Chechnya in which she became a material witness in a criminal case against rebel leader Ramzan Kadyrov who was accused of multiple kidnappings.  The finger-pointing soon started as protests and vigils were held throughout Russia and in European cities over her death.  

In August 2007, Russia arrested ten suspects in the killing.  They were members of Chechen organized crime groups and former FSB agents.  FSB director Nikolai Patrushev blamed the murder on outside forces attempting to stoke a crisis to destabilize Russia and impugn Putin.  The Politkovskaya killing set off a chain of legal events of trials, charges, and counter-charges of who was responsible.  There can be no doubt that some elements of the FSB were involved.  One suspect had avoided arrest and prosecution after receiving a forged passport and documents from an FSB official.  The actual perpetrators may never be known although most people accuse the FSB doing it at Putin’s direction.

However, there is one confusing aspect in the case that may be cause for a pause in that line of thinking.  In November 2006, Movladi Baisarov- a pro-Putin Chechen and former FSB commander- was shot dead in the streets of Moscow.  Basiarov was scheduled to give testimony in the impending trial of Kadyrov on kidnapping and murder charges. 

Poitkovskaya worked for the publication Novaya Gazeta which was preparing a story linking her death threat to that of Baisarov’s murder.  Beslan Gantimirov, the mayor of Grozny in Chechnya, had come to the offices of Novaya Gazeta claiming that armed gunmen hired by Kadyrov had been sent to Moscow to kill him, Baisarov, and Politkovskaya. 

This creates some confusion in attribution of the deaths since there is clearly one dead journalist who opposed Vladimir Putin and one dead government official who supported Vladimir Putin as well as a death threat against another supporter of Vladimir Putin.  These are three disparate individuals in their views of Putin’s Russia and actions in Chechnya.  Gantamirov was the mayor of Grozny, the capital city of Chechnya where Kadyrov operated and was likely the person most in the know.

What all three have in common is not necessarily an animus towards Putin, but being on the wrong side of Kadyrov.  Putin has repeatedly denied any role in the death of Politkovskaya.  Facing protesters over her death while on a visit to Dresden, he stated that she was an innocuous factor in Russia and that most of her support came from dissidents outside Russia.  However, the fact that former FSB officers were possibly involved raised the suspicions of these dissidents and expatriates, many of whom had relocated to London.  The simple fact is, although an irritant to Putin, Politkovskaya had greater notoriety outside Russia.

Next: The Litivenko case