Russian president Vladimir Putin has a problem — one that can’t be solved by hiring a slick Washington public-relations firm.
The death, under highly suspicious circumstances, of Ivan Safronov, an investigative reporter on defense affairs for the newspaper Kommersant — and someone whose work I had used in my own research — is the latest in a string of high-profile killings of journalists. Russia now vies with Iraq as one of the world’s unsafest locations for reporters. The ongoing targeting of journalists who expose corruption and write pieces that criticize government and business elites is one of those areas where there has not been a marked change since the Yeltsin era — and few of these cases have ever been solved. Russia’s economy may be booming, but, as David Satter, Lawrence Uzzell, and others have noted, a post-Communist moral malaise continues to infect both the Russian state and society.
It is important, however, to put Safronov’s death into a larger context. Some Western commentators have seized on the theme that this is another example of “Putin’s political opponents dying off.” The problem is that a number of those who have died — people like murdered Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov or Safronov himself — were not political activists nor had they been particularly opposed to many of the policies of the Putin government. Another critic who also died under mysterious circumstances, Yuri Shchekochikin, had, in a conversation with me, been generally supportive of some of the stands taken by Putin, at least in foreign policy.
If political opposition was the prime motivation, we would expect more politicians, NGO leaders, activists, and their financial sponsors to be targets. Boris Nemtsov, a leading member of the opposition, published a long op-ed in Novaya Gazeta in February 2005 denouncing the “personal dictatorship of the president … with widespread abuses of democratic rights and liberties … [and] flourishing corruption, and citizens having no rights when confronted with the bureaucrats’ arbitrary abuse of power.” He ended his long assessment with a call for “regime change” in Russia. As of the time of this writing, he was alive and well. Simply being a political opponent of Putin does not seem to be the prime reason why some people have been singled out.
Indeed, the trail of suspicious deaths and murders and attacks leads primarily to journalists and intelligence specialists — people who by training and profession gather secrets — people who were uncovering evidence of corruption at both the regional and federal levels; hidden crimes, human-rights abuses, shady deals, or sometimes just what the Russians call “kompromat” — the “compromising material” which can be used to embarrass or blackmail rivals — all the things that entrenched interests in both the government and the business communities never want exposed to the light of day. Safronov is reported to have been working on an article about the sale of advanced weaponry to Iran and Syria as well as the means by which third parties would be used to transship the weapons, giving Moscow “plausible deniability” if pressed by the United States or Israel on this issue. Some have also speculated that Safronov had obtained information on how these sales might also generate profits for specific individuals. The murky circumstances surrounding Safronov’s death cannot help but raise such questions, especially as Igor Yakovenko, secretary general of the Russian Union of Journalists, reiterated earlier this week that suicide is not a plausible explanation for Safronov’s death.
This then raises the specter of the type of privatization no one wants to see: where the resources of the state are utilized by “the powerful” in the service of their own private interests and agendas.
Russians themselves are concerned about this question — and are talking and writing about it. In the aftermath of the Litvinenko poisoning, a Russian journalist, Irina Demchenko, wrote:
A Russian political researcher recently said that Putin’s government has replaced real politics with special operations by secret services, and this certainly seems to be the case. What is even more frightening is that Putin and his team appear unable to control all of these operations, learning the hard way that it is easier to rub the magic lantern than it is to command the genie.
Another Russian academic, writing not on the Safronov case but on the recent installation of Ramzan Kadyrov as leader of Chechnya — and the fact that, in return for keeping order, he has been granted a relatively free hand in running the region — noted that “the elimination of democratic processes and their replacement by the political elite undermines rather than strengthens state power in the country” and expressed his concern that strengthening the position of the elite was being confused with making the state more effective.
One of most awesome responsibilities of a state is its monopoly on the use of force and its power to take life. One of the persistent critiques of the Yeltsin government was how it had empowered a new class of oligarchs able to operate above the law. Does Putin want his legacy to be that he merely replaced one group of “the powerful” with another–equally unaccountable for their actions and similarly able to act with impunity?
— Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest and blogs at The Washington Realist.