Suppose that during Bill Clinton's two terms as president Ken Starr, Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, Newt Gingrich and five other prominent Clinton critics had all been shot and killed, in gangland-style contract hits. Suppose that Clinton had maintained a stony silence about the killings, that nobody was ever convicted of any of them, and when asked about Coulter's murder had responded by saying, in effect: "good riddance, though it's annoying to have all this negative publicity raining down on my head."
Would this give rise, perhaps, to reasonable suspicion that Clinton might have had something to do with the murders? Might it not, at least, make one think that the country would be better off without him?
On Monday morning January 19th, a prominent Russian attorney (and director of the Rule of Law Institute) -- Stanislav Markelov, by name -- gave a press conference in downtown Moscow, less than a mile from Vladmir Putin's Kremlin. Markelov was speaking as the attorney for the family of 18-year-old Heda Kungayeva, a young Chechen girl who was kidnapped in March 2000 by Russian forces occupying the region, raped and strangled. The ringleader in the attack, Russian Army Colonel Yuri Budanov, was tried and convicted five years ago and sent to prison on a ten-year stretch (but only after a trial the previous year had been set aside when Budanov beat the rap using a "temporary insanity" defense). To Markelov's chagrin, on Thursday of the preceding week Budanov had been released on parole, having served only half his sentence. Markelov was far from alone: Even the Kremlin's puppet ruler in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, was outraged by Budanov's release.
Markelov, who had been shadowing the prosecution from the time Budanov first beat the rap, announced that the family intended to file legal proceedings to challenge the early release. He poured scorn on the decision, pointing out that oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky had been denied parole just a few months earlier even though his alleged financial crimes were far less serious.
The attorney, well-known in Russia for representing interests unpopular within the Kremlin walls, including those of murdered journalist and strident Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya, then left the press conference and walked outside to his waiting vehicle. With him went a young journalism student named Anastasia Barburova, a stringer for Politkovskaya's newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the leading voice of Kremlin criticism in the nation. Barburova had been covering the Budanov trial for the paper for some time.
Markelov never made it to his car. At around 2 pm Moscow time an assailant approached him from behind, pointed a silenced pistol at the back of his head and pulled the trigger. Markelov died instantly, and the assailant attempted to flee. Barburova, heedless of her own safety, charged after the killer and was shot in the head for her trouble. She died in the emergency room several hours later.
Horrifying though the killings were, they could not come as much of a surprise to anyone who follows current events in Russia. Indeed, for us the surprise came in the fact that they did not occur sooner.
In November 1998, for instance, just two months after Putin took over the KGB (by then renamed "FSB"), Galina Starovoitova was gunned down at her apartment block under nearly identical circumstances. Starovoitova, a prominent member of the Russian parliament at the time, was perhaps the staunchest human rights advocate Russia has ever produced.
Then in April 2003 a second Kremlin-critical parliamentarian, Sergei Yushenkov,was shot and killed outside his apartment block. Yushenkov was leading an investigation into the bombing of two apartment buildings in Moscow in September 1999, killing over 200. The bombings were blamed on Chechen terrorists, who never claimed credit for them, and were used by Putin as justification for a massive military invasion of the breakaway republic. In bizarre fashion, the Kremlin razed the bombing sites and refused to carry out a public inquiry, leading many to suspect that the Kremlin itself had planted the bombs in order to reverse public opposition to military intervention.
Three months later Yushenkov's right-hand man on the investigation, fellow parliamentarian and Kremlin-critical journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin, died in a poisoning attack. Shchekochikhin's last newspaper articles before his death was entitled "Are we Russia or KGB of Soviet Union?" In it, he described such issues as the refusal of the FSB to explain to the Russian Parliament what poison gas was applied during the Moscow theater hostage crisis.
So within five years of Putin coming to power in the Moscow Kremlin, three opposition legislators had been brutally murdered. None of the killers, much less the masterminds pulling the strings, have ever been apprehended. Having liquidated resistance in the legislature, the killers turned their attention to journalists and activists.
In June 2004, Nikolai Girenko, a prominent human rights defender, Professor of Ethnology and expert on racism and discrimination in the Russian Federation is shot dead in his home in St Petersburg. Girenko's work has been crucial in ensuring that racially motivated assaults are classified as hate crimes, rather than mere hooliganism, and therefore warrant harsher sentences - as well as appearing as black marks on Russia's public record.
The next month Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition Forbes magazine, was shot and killed in Moscow. Forbes has reported that at the time of his death, Paul was believed to have been investigating a complex web of money laundering involving a Chechen reconstruction fund, reaching into the centers of power in the Kremlin and involving elements of organized crime and the FSB. In September 2006, Andrei Kozlov, First Deputy Chairman of Russia's Central Bank, who strove to stamp out money laundering (basically acting on analyses like that of reporter Klebnikov), the highest-ranking reformer in Russia, is shot and killed in Moscow. Many media reports classified Kozlov's killing as "an impudent challenge to all Russian authorities" and warned that "failure to apprehend the killers would send a signal to others that intimidation of government officials is once again an option." Less considered was the possibility that Kozlov, like Klebnikov, was on the trail of corruption that would have led into the Kremlin itself, which then lashed out at him preemptively assuming he could not be bought.
Over the next two months, the most sensational of the victims were to fall; first Politikovaksya, the heir apparent to Starovoitova and a ferocious critic of the Kremlin's policy in Chechnya, was gunned down at her apartment block in October, and then the next months the name Alexander Litvinenko made headlines across the globe. Litvinenko was the first of the group to fall in a foreign country, and was murdered though the use of radioactive contamination. The KGB defector had published a book laying out the charges against the Kremlin over the apartment bombings and worked with Politikovskaya to document Kremlin human rights abuses in Chechnya, an obviously fatal double-whammy from the Kremlin's point of view.
Challenged abroad about Politkovskaya's murder, Putin said that her killing had "done more damage to Russia than her writings," clearly implying that he felt she was a menace and regretted her killing only because of the adverse publicity it generated.
And then came Markelov, making a group of nine high-profile liquidations over the course of ten years, nearly one a year on average.
This doesn't count, of course, the near misses or the imprisonments or the character assassinations. In September, for instance, 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, an anti-Russian candidate for the presidency of the Ukraine, was poisoned by Dioxin. Yushchenko's chief of staff Oleg Ribachuk suggested that the poison used was a mycotoxin called T-2, also known as "Yellow Rain," a Soviet-era substance which was reputedly used in Afghanistan as a chemical weapon. Miraculously, Yushchenko survived the attack. In October 2003, both Mikhail Trepashkin, Yushenkov's attorney, and Khodorkvosky, then making noises about challenging Putin for the presidency, were both jailed on charges human rights activists condemned as political motivated. Four months after Starovoitova's killing, Russians were watching slackjawed as their Attorney General, Yuri Skuratov, cavorted naked in bed with a prostitute -- video that miraculously surfaced just as he was about to announce a major corruption investigation aimed at the Kremlin.
The list goes on. Indeed, this is only the tip of a very bloody iceberg. And throughout, Vladimir Putin has maintained an icy silence, failing to condemn the killers or to push for justice, certainly not launching any investigation of possible involvement by government actors despite the use of high-tech poisons and highly trained professional assassins. To the contrary, Putin has moved instead to abolish jury trials, extend the presidential term from four to eight years, and legislate independent media and opposition political parties into oblivion.
What is the Western world to make of all this bloodshed? For starters, it must realize that opposition leaders in Putin's Russia are now officially an endangered species. Those who remain above ground, like Oleg Kozlovsky and Roman Dobrokhotov for instance, must be protected if Russia is to have any hope of avoiding a return to the Soviet past. It wouldn't tax the resources of the Western world to provide such figures with secure offices, transportation and bodyguards who might, if not prevent the killings, at least provide a better chance of apprehending the killers.
President Obama should speak out on the killing of Stanislav Markelov. He should reach out to leaders like Kozlovsky and Dorbokhotov who show a willingness to risk their lives for democracy in Russia, and to encourage other young Russians to do the same. He should galvanize European opposition to the neo-Soviet state that Putin is erecting at breakneck speed. He declared in his inaugural address to the nation: "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
He should show the world he meant it.
Update: Novaya Gazeta deputy editor Pavel Felgenhaur, writing in the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor, has issued the following statement on behalf of the paper regarding the murder of Stanislav Markelov:
In the opinion of the Novaya Gazeta staff, of which I am a member, the Russian security services or rogue elements within these services are the prime suspects in the murders of Baburova and Markelov. The boldness of the attack by a single gunman in broad daylight in the center of Moscow required professional preliminary planning and surveillance that would necessitate the security services, which closely control that particular neighborhood, turning a blind eye. The use of a gun with a silencer does not fit with the usual pattern of murders by nationalist neo-Nazi youth groups in Russia, which use homemade explosives, knifes, and group assaults to beat up and stab opponents to death.
These are breathtakingly brave words from Felgenhauer and his newspaper, words which history shows could lead to their violent, bloody death. They teach us the true meaning of words like "journalism" and "patriotism" and cry out for support from those who hold such principles dear.