Moscow, We Have a Problem

If the end result in 2008 is for Russia to be more prosperous but to have simply traded one group of “the powerful” who are unaccountable and operate above the law for another, that may not be the legacy Putin is looking to leave behind.

Since becoming president in 2000, fourteen investigative journalists have died in Russia-some murdered outright, others perishing in mysterious circumstances-under Vladimir Putin's watch. This is one area where there has not been significant improvement since the Yeltsin Administration.

The latest case is that of Ivan Safronov, a former Space Forces colonel who became a military-affairs reporter for the newspaper Kommersant, whose body was found last Friday and who was buried today.

Safronov is reported to have been working on an article about the sale of advanced weaponry to Iran and Syria as well as the means by which third parties would be used to transship the weapons, giving Moscow "plausible deniability" if pressed by the United States or Israel on this issue. Some have also speculated that Safronov had obtained information on how these sales might also generate profits for specific individuals.

Indeed, the trail of suspicious deaths and murders and attacks leads primarily to journalists and intelligence specialists-people who by training and profession gather secrets-people who were uncovering evidence of corruption at both the regional and federal levels; hidden crimes, human rights abuses, shady deals or sometimes just what the Russians call "kompromat"-the "compromising material" which can be used to embarrass or blackmail rivals-all the things that entrenched interests in both the government and the business communities never want exposed to the light of day.

This raises the specter of the type of privatization no one wants to see: where the resources of the state are utilized by "the powerful" in the service of their own private interests and agendas.

It should be emphasized that many of the journalists who have died were not political activists, not engaged in efforts to replace the Putin Administration, and in some cases were even supportive of Putin's policies.

The Russian government is saying the right things. Last month Putin declared: "For our country . . . the issue of journalist persecution is one of the most pressing. And we realize our degree of responsibility in this. We will do everything to protect the press corps." And, reacting to the annual State Department human rights report, which highlighted the contract killings of journalists as one of the major problems facing Russia, Ella Pamfilova, chair of President Vladimir Putin's human rights advisory council, said, "Obviously, we have serious problems; I agree with most of the report."

But it is time to move from words to deeds.

In January, Anatol Lieven wrote in the Financial Times:

The single most famous document expressing America's commitment to freedom in the world must surely be President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech of 1941, calling for US resistance to Nazi and Japanese aggression. The freedoms Roosevelt spoke of were freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear, which he defined in terms of the permanent abolition of aggressive war.
. . . Indeed, all these freedoms can be present under mild and civilised autocracies (though not, of course, totalitarian systems) as well as democracies; and the last two, alas, can be absent in ill-governed, impoverished and chauvinist democracies.

This is why I had found Putin's managed pluralism to be preferable to a system which might play with the forms of liberal democracy but could not provide security to the bulk of the populace. But if the end result in 2008 is for Russia to be more prosperous but to have simply traded one group of "the powerful" who are unaccountable and operate above the law for another, I don't know if that is the legacy Putin is looking to leave behind.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest and blogs at The Washington Realist (http://washingtonrealist.blogspot.com)