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Editing out Russian reporters

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Russian woman journalist was shot Oct. 7 in her apartment block in central Moscow and therein lies a story with a moral.

Anna Politkovskaya, 48, mother of two, was an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin. According to the Reuters obituary, Mrs. Politkovskaya won international fame and numerous prizes for her exposes of rights abuses by Mr. Putin's government. The Moscow chief prosecutor told reporters at the crime scene that he was treating the death as murder. Her murder came on the day Putin celebrated his 54th birthday.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, a shareholder in Mrs. Politkovskaya's newspaper Nova Gazeta called the killing a "a savage crime. ... It is a blow to the entire democratic, independent press. It is a grave crime against the country, against all if us."

Here's the scenario of what will happen now:

Mrs. Politkovskaya's assassin(s) will be "found" and arrested. "He/They" will, of course, be convicted in a courtroom and sentenced to 5 zillion years in jail. Who's counting? Mr. Putin, who describes his rule as "managed democracy," will now get credit for jailing an assassin and thereby protecting freedom of the press. In the meantime journalists, especially those with wives and young children, will think twice before seeking and writing exposes of Mr. Putin's system of what I call "managed justice."

All the legal amenities will be observed, but the intimidation process will be in full swing. After all, there is the assassination of Paul Klebnikov on a Moscow street late at night on July 9, 2004. He had written a book about the new Russian economy which he characterized as "gangster capitalism."

Mr. Klebnikov's killers were arrested and tried on Jan. 10. But the trial was closed because the Russian authorities argued certain documents they would present during the trial would contain information about surveillance methods used by law enforcement. All the accused pleaded not guilty. As soon as the trial started, the original judge fell ill, and on Feb. 13, she was replaced by a different judge. The trial had to be restarted from the very beginning, including the new jury selection. The trial ended three months later with a jury verdict of "not guilty." Natch.

Mrs. Politkovskaya was an unbridled critic of Mr. Putin whom she accused of failing to shake off his past as a KGB agent. She wrote about him:

"I dislike him ... for his cynicism, for his racism, for his lies ... for the massacre of the innocent which went on throughout his first term as president," she wrote in her book "Putin's Russia." Her book was published overseas but not in Russia itself. Just like in the good old Soviet days. Remember Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago"? His manuscript was smuggled into Italy. It was then translated and published abroad as a great best-seller and a fine movie.

If you were a Russian journalist who saw what was going on, how courageous would you be about tangling with the Putin mobsters?

Last September, Andrei Kozlov, a senior Russian central banker, was shot and killed in what was described as one of the highest profile contract killings since Mr. Putin came to power six years ago. Mr. Kozlov withdrew licenses from banks suspected of money laundering and other crimes.

In 2004, Mr. Kozlov took control of Sodbiznesbank, accusing the bank of engaging in laundering ransom money from hostage-taking. After his death, Kommersant, a Russian business paper, credited Mr. Kozlov with combating "gray schemes," illegal importing practices that minimize customs duties and value-added tax payments. In 2006 he revoked the license of Neftyanoi Bank.

Bankers aren't safe, journalists, domestic and foreign, aren't safe. Mrs. Politkovskaya is dead. Who's next?

How do you say "OK Corral" in Russian?

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times.