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Russian Democracy Takes a Hit

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
October 16, 2006

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Mikhail Bulgakov employed subtle imagery, masterfully comparing the dictator Stalin to the devil Woland in his seminal The Master and Margarita. By contrast, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was more direct but no less eviscerating. Writing for Novaya Gazeta, she openly lambasted Russian authorities for their human rights atrocities, use of torture, and undemocratic leanings (Freedom House). No wonder she earned the ire of many a Russian official and became the target of numerous assassination attempts (WashPost). On October 7, she was murdered in cold blood in what appears to have been a contract killing. “By whom?” is the question. Mob-style murders, not unlike New York’s in the 1940s, rarely get solved in today’s Russia, despite President Vladimir Putin’s promises to the contrary.

The Russian president dismissed suggestions of official ties to the hit. “[H]er influence on political life was extremely insignificant in scale,” said Putin. After all, the former KGB officer has consolidated power and created an atmosphere of intimidation in Russia. Much of the media is state-run and supine. Russia, over the past fifteen years, has been the third-deadliest place for journalists (behind Algeria and Iraq), according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. On average, two journalists are murdered each year in contract-style slayings, estimates Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “The practices and institutions that have developed over [the past five years],” finds a recent CFR Task Force report, “have become far less open, far less transparent, far less pluralist, far less subject to the rule of law, and far less vulnerable to the criticism and counterbalancing of a vigorous opposition or independent media.” The European Union’s anti-fraud commissioner, Siim Kallas, said the recent spate of contract killings was redolent of Stalinist times and may harm EU-Russian relations (AP). In September, hit men gunned down Andrei Kozlov, a top central banker and crusader against money laundering (RIA Novosti).

For her part, Politkovskaya was a persistent campaigner to hold Russian officials accountable for their actions in Chechnya, a breakaway province whose pro-independence Islamist militants have launched a series of terrorist strikes against civilian targets in Russia. The attacks have in turn sparked a xenophobic backlash among some Russians against “non-Slavic natives.” Human Rights First finds a spike in race-related hate crimes in Russia, the bulk of which go unsolved. Fifty-nine percent of Russians favor staunching the flow of immigrants from former Soviet republics, according to the Moscow-based Levada Center. The rise of Russia’s extreme nationalism has damaged its reputation globally and raised fresh doubts about Putin’s commitment to democratic institutions, finds Michael Mainville of the Toronto Star. The Globalist examines Russian authorities’ ham-fisted response to a recent slew of hate crimes. Putin’s language—he once promised to wipe out Chechen rebels “even in the outhouse”—has done little to dissuade critics who paint him as a modern-day Woland. As C.J. Chivers writes in the New York Times, Putin is “prone to acidic asides, often painfully timed, that reveal all the humor of a sniper.”

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