Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 37

Tensions between the Russian authorities and the biweekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta ratcheted up yet again yesterday, when a spokesman for the Federal Security Service (FSB) accused the paper of using trips made by its Chechnya correspondent, Anna Politkovskaya, “for resolving its financial problems and differences with certain foundations”–specifically, the Soros Foundation.

In February 2001, Politkovskaya was detained by the FSB in Chechnya for allegedly having improper accreditation. The detention took place while she was investigating a so-called “filtration camp” (detention center) that had been set up at a Russian airborne unit’s base, allegedly on the orders of Lieutenant General Valery Baranov, who was then commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, where suspected Chechen rebels were allegedly held for ransom. In February of this year, Politkovskaya fled Chechnya while investigating allegations that a group of military intelligence commandos had murdered six Chechen civilians they suspected of being rebels and then tried to cover up the crime by burning the bodies. While the Russian military again claimed that Politkovskaya had traveled to Chechnya without the proper accreditation, adding this time that she had been detained for her own safety and later left on her own accord, the journalist herself said she had fled Chechnya after receiving a warning from friendly security officials that she was in danger. In both cases, Politkovskaya denied that her accreditation was not in order (see the Monitor, February 11, 13).

FSB spokesman Ilya Shabalkin told journalists in Djohar (Grozny), the Chechen capital, yesterday that the real reason for Politkovskaya’s trips to Chechnya was a disagreement she had with the Soros Foundation–set up by George Soros, the American financier–which had given Novaya Gazeta a US$55,000 grant for a project called “Goryachie tochki” (“Hot spots”). Shabalkin claimed that this sum included funding for Politkovskaya’s assignments in Chechnya, and the journalist had received an initial installment of US$14,000, but had failed to account for how it had been spent. After this, the FSB spokesman alleged, the Soros Foundation threatened to end its financing of Novaya Gazeta, which Politkovskaya responded to by organizing a “scandal”–that is, traveling to Chechnya over February 9-10 without proper accreditation in order to create a controversy and thereby “force the foundation to write off” the disputed sum. Each of Politkovskaya’s assignments in Chechnya, Shabalkin added, “are accompanied by a propagandistic uproar and unhealthy excitement that have no direct connection with her professional activity” (Kommersant, February 21; Kavkaz.strana.ru, NTV.ru, February 20).

In response to Shabalkin’s allegations, unnamed Soros Foundation officials were quoted as saying that Politkovskaya’s journalistic activities, including her trips to Chechnya, had nothing to do with the foundation’s grant to Novaya Gazeta for the “Hot spots” project, which is headed by Vyacheslav Izmailov, the paper’s military affairs correspondent. The Soros sources also said the foundation had no disagreements with the paper over how the grant money had been spent. For his part, Izmailov noted that the “Hot spots” project was not directly connected to the paper’s journalistic activities but rather was aimed at, among other things, finding and freeing Russian POWS and civilians being held hostage in Chechnya, helping Chechen orphans and helping elderly people get out of the republic for medical treatment. Asked to comment on Shabalkin’s remarks, Izmailov, a retired Interior Ministry major, said: “What is there to say here; it is the most rotten office I’ve ever had to deal with.” Meanwhile Novaya Gazeta’s chief editor, Dmitry Muratov, said he would sue the FSB for Shabalkin’s comments. “If we manage to win money from the FSB [in court], we will give it to the Soros Foundation for the development of its projects,” Muratov said (Kommersant, February 21).

Earlier this week, Yury Shchekochikhin, Novaya Gazeta’s deputy editor, was placed under protective guard along with his family after receiving threats for an article alleging that the Prosecutor General’s Office had shut down a probe into alleged contraband by two Moscow furniture outlets after a criminal group paid unnamed officials in the office US$2 million (see the Monitor, February 20).