Since 2000, 16 journalists have been slain in Russia. All but one case, that of Igor Domnikov, formerly a reporter with Novaya Gazeta , remain unsolved. Despite a recent pledge by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to fight "legal nihilism" in the country, Moscow remains the third most dangerous place in the world for journalists. An examination of two recent murders of journalists in Russia suggests that the pattern is unlikely to change under the current administration.
On January 19, 2009 a masked man shot Stanislav Markelov, a human-rights lawyer. When Markelov's companion, Anastasia Baburova, a reporter with Novaya Gazeta who had written about the radicalization of Russian society attempted to chase the perpetrator, she was also shot and killed. The Russian government's response to the deaths was muted. President Medvedev held a closed meeting with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Dmitri Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta, a publication which has lost four reporters to assassination over the past eight years, including Anna Politkovskaya who was killed in another contract-style hit in 2006. Following the gathering, the Kremlin posted a one-sentence summary of the event naming the participants. Vladimir Putin has not commented publicly on the matter.
While less is known regarding the circumstances surrounding Bubrova's death, the cases of Politkovskaya and Merkelov have in common evidence of motive on the part of the government, prior threats leveraged and carried out against each, and the victims' vocal involvement in politically sensitive issues, deemed by the Kremlin to be within its sole domain.
Anna Politkovskaya, one of Russia's most prominent human rights activists, publicly spoke of the Putin government's drive to centralize power within the executive branch, restrict individual as well as media freedoms, and politicize the justice system. She chronicled Russian military abuses in the Caucasus - including the 2004 siege of a school in Beslan, South Ossetia and the war in Chechnya. The initial unsuccessful attempt on her life as well as her eventual murder stemmed from these activities. Then Russian President Vladimir Putin attributed her death to "the shadowy forces intent on damaging Russia's reputation on the international stage" and termed Politkovskaya's influence "minimal." Variations of this view continue to be echoed by high-level Russian officials.
As was the case with Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov was threatened before his murder. As a result of helping to convict a Siberian police officer of abducting and torturing a Chechen man in 2004, Markelov was attacked in the Moscow metro. The perpetrators stole documents related to the above-mentioned case. To date, no one has been arrested in connection with the attack.
Markelov was murdered shortly after having conducted a press conference condemning the early release of Russian Colonel Yuri Budanov, whom Markelov as a human rights lawyer helped to convict for the murder of a Chechen girl in 2000. Budanov, the highest-ranking officer convicted of a crime during the Chechen campaigns, is admired by some Russian nationalists. He has denied involvement in the Markelov murder, which remains unsolved. Markelov was working on presenting several cases, including an appeal in the Budanov case, to the European Court of Human Rights. The Court, which has become the unlikely judicial forum of last resort for Russians unable to obtain justice at home, is at risk of being undermined by the Kremlin's single-handed refusal to back its reform.
Russian government inaction and seeming unconcern regarding the murders of the country's prominent human rights activists send a clear message of impunity to future perpetrators. More generally, it suggests a reversal in Moscow's attempt to adhere to fundamental Western principles including, due process and the rule of law. The Obama administration may want to utilize the current opening in U.S.-Russian relations to urge Medvedev to keep his promise that "all instances related to attempts on the life and health of journalists will be investigated and prosecuted to the end, regardless of when they occurred." Unlike during the 1990s, overt pressure by Washington is unlikely to influence Moscow's human rights policy. However, efforts to sway Russia's approach to the issue might prove more successful if the U.S. appeals to Moscow's perceived interests.
Strengthening the rule of law, as well as adopting and enforcing legislation that protects human rights as well as intellectual property rights also would serve at least two of Russia's key interests - to increase foreign investment in the country, and to command respect on the international stage. The continuation of the status quo is undesirable to both Moscow and Washington.
Elizabeth Zolotukhina is head editor of the Case Studies Working Group with the Project on National Security Reform. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Constanze Stelzenmüller: Germany's Russia Question
- Andreas Umland: NATO-Russia War: A Possible Scenario
- Tobias Wolny: Time for a Middle Road In Dealing With Russia