Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 5

The fortnight saw several developments in domestic politics which again showed that the more things change in Russia, the more they remain the same. While Acting President Vladimir Putin vowed to create a “dictatorship of law,” in which all Russians would have to obey the same rules, his words were belied by the ordeal of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky, the humanitarian crisis in Chechnya and the apparent takeover of Russia’s lucrative aluminum business by two Kremlin-connected “oligarchs.”

Babitsky, who had been missing since February 3–when, according to Russian government officials, he voluntarily turned himself over to Chechen rebels in exchange for Russian POWs–suddenly turned up in Makhachkala, Dagestan on February 25. But the correspondent, who had spent two weeks in a notorious Chechen “filtration camp” before the infamous “exchange,” was arrested and jailed again, this time for having a fake passport. Babitsky’s lawyer flew to Makhachkala and, after meeting with his client, insisted that the correspondent had been forced to take the forged Azeri passport by his captors. Babitsky himself refused to sign the protocols of his interrogation by the Dagestani police, and began a hunger strike to protest his latest incarceration.

A break in Babitsky’s case came on February 28, when, with international outrage mounting over the journalist’s ordeal, Putin suddenly decided to play the role of Good Tsar. The acting president, who had previously suggested that Babitsky deserved his fate, suddenly urged Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo “to consider more attentively if there is a need to keep Babitsky in custody,” adding that he himself did not think it “necessary.” As if on cue, Babitsky was put on a special Interior Ministry plane–without informing either his lawyer or his wife, who had also traveled to Makhachkala–and flown to Moscow. He was still, however, under investigation for the fake passport and reportedly would still face charges of having “joined” the Chechen rebels. Back in Moscow, Babitsky denied that he supported any side in the conflict. He also said that he had indeed agreed to the notorious February 3 “exchange,” but on the understanding that he would be handed over to a Chechen rebel field commander he knew in exchange for Russian POWs. Instead, he claimed, he had been handed over to Chechens belonging to “Adamallah” (Humanity), a Moscow-headquartered Chechen group which he and others say is closely linked to Russia’s special services.