Investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, my friend and colleague from Novaya gazeta newspaper, was shot to death in an elevator in her apartment building last October. Anna was an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin’s policy in Chechnya. Our newspaper began a serious independent investigation, as we did not have much hope that the authorities would do anything to find the true culprits.
Last June I insisted that Novaya gazeta must go forward and immediately publish the evidence we have gathered about the murder, before the authorities falsely pin the blame on Putin’s political foes, like the self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Still it was decided to hold back, to not compromise the official investigation that was still moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.
The small team of independent investigators at Novaya gazeta believed in the integrity of the official investigator’s team from the Prosecutor General’s Office, headed by chief special investigator Pyotr Garibyan. The official investigators cooperated with Novaya gazeta and were in essence moving in the same direction — concentrating on the same group of suspects. We, as well as the investigators from the Prosecutor General’s Office, understood that a political decision might anytime intervene and fully distort the execution of justice in the Politkovskaya case. But not withstanding such outside interference, we believed the official investigators should be given more time to arrest the culprits.
The Kremlin has recently enacted a radical change in the structure of the Prosecutor General’s Office. A separate Investigative Committee is being formed, headed by Alexander Bastrykin, an associate of Putin from St. Petersburg. As of September 7, all investigative work will be under Bastrykin, with Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika seemingly left as a figurehead. Apparently, Chaika deliberately rushed forward the arrests of suspects in the Politkovskaya case to announce a major success before his authority as chief of the investigators expired. This undue haste may hinder the chances of a successful conviction of the suspects in court (Kommersant, August 31).
On August 27, Russian state TV broadcast Chaika telling Putin that 10 people had been arrested in the Politkovskaya case and that “in the near future” all will be charged. At a press conference the same day Chaika announced that a group of Chechen mobsters, supported by retired and acting Interior Ministry (police) officers and an intelligence (FSB) officer, had carried out the murder. The police and FSB officers allegedly spied on Politkovskaya, followed her movements, and provided the assassin (allegedly a Chechen) with information to make a successful hit. At the same time, Chaika implied that the Chechen hit men and the turncoat police/FSB officers were acting on a murder contract put out by a person residing abroad, “whom Politkovskaya knew and met before,” apparently implicating Berezovsky or some other exiled Putin foe. The plot to kill Politkovskaya, according to Chaika, was aimed at defaming Russia (Rossiya TV, August 27).
The arrest of the apparently guilty parties is, in any case, a positive move. The Kremlin does not seem to have established any political position in the Politkovskaya case and is not overtly hindering the course of justice. The case of ex-FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in London last November, is somewhat different, although the Kremlin has also implied that defaming Russia and Putin were the main aims and pointed an accusing finger at Berezovsky. Russian authorities are refusing to extradite ex-FSB officer Andrei Lugovoi, accused by British prosecutors of involvement in the murder, and have flatly rejected any possible Russian guilt.
This week Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that “because of the lack of convincing proofs of Lugovoi’s guilt London has made a choice in favor of a noisy propaganda show” (www.mid.ru, September 3). British investigators have followed the radioactive trail left by Lugovoi from London to Moscow and have discovered traces of polonium-210 in the visa section of the UK embassy in Moscow, which Lugovoi had visited. The embassy was the only place in Russia the Brits were allowed to inspect. The Prosecutor General’s Office did not report any findings of any other polonium contamination in Russia. An executive decision was taken not to investigate anything seriously.
In the Politkovskaya murder, the Kremlin was apparently not directly involved, but other, lower Russian officials may be. In recent days, there has been a constant stream of leaks of information to the press, apparently aimed at creating an impression that the case is falling apart. Kommersant (August 31) reported that two of the suspects have been released. In fact, Alexei Berkin and Oleg Alimov, who the investigators believe are minor accomplices, were placed under house arrest. It was also reported that Garibyan had been taken off the case (RIA-Novosti, September 4). The Prosecutor General’s Office dismissed this as disinformation (Itar-Tass, September 4). It is possible that local Moscow police/FSB officials are afraid further investigations into the Politkovskaya murder will expose a network of corrupt connections between law enforcement and organized crime in Moscow, facilitating further arrests.
Like the investigation into the murder of Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov, whereby cases against alleged police/FSB accomplices were dropped and the Chechens accused of the crime, the Politkovskaya case may also end with an acquittal (Kommersant, August 31). In any case, the Politkovskaya case will not go to court — if ever — before the Duma elections in December and presidential elections next March. The future composition of power is impossible to predict. The Kremlin may stay more or less neutral, allowing the case to falter, or may press for some specific verdict.