Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A year ago, the crusading American journalist Paul Klebnikov was murdered outside his office in Moscow, shot dead in a premeditated killing. The questions of who murdered him and why remain disputed, and show how far Russia remains from guaranteeing liberties for prominent foreign reporters, to say nothing of its own citizens.

Mr. Klebnikov was in no small way the leading edge of free and open inquiry by foreign journalists in Russia, and quite possibly by anyone there. Renowned for his toughness, his knowledge of Russian business and politics and his singular passion for the country, Mr. Klebnikov authored groundbreaking books including “Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia” and “Conversation with a Barbarian,” a series of interviews with the Chechen separatist Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev. He had just launched Forbes magazine’s Russian edition in April 2004, intending to establish Forbes as the leading expositor of corruption and crime in Russian politics and business. But apparently his work hit a nerve.

On the evening of July 9, as Mr. Klebnikov exited Forbes’ Moscow offices, gunmen shot him several times from a car with tinted windows. After a series of mishaps, including a jammed hospital elevator that prevented him from receiving emergency surgery, Mr. Klebnikov died. Contract killings had reached an all-time post-Soviet high that summer, government statistics later showed. Twelve journalists have been murdered in Russia since Vladimir Putin took office. Mr. Klebnikov was the first and only American among them.

Who killed Mr. Klebnikov? For starters, Mr. Klebnikov did not know the answer himself, to judge by what he said in the hours before he died. In the nexus of Russian business, politics and crime, where Mr. Klebnikov’s journalism probed, any number of potential villains could have emerged. The evidentiary trail apparently leads in many different directions: In a phone interview with The Washington Times, Richard Behar, head of Project Klebnikov, a team of investigative reporters and writers looking to unravel the murder and the stories Mr. Klebnikov was pursuing when he was murdered, tells us his team is investigating at least five major theories, one in Moscow, one based in London, one centering on the Chechen Nukhayev about whom Mr. Klebnikov wrote “Conversation with a Barbarian” and two which he cannot discuss. Project Klebnikov is awaiting evidence before reaching conclusions about any of the theories.

The same cannot be said about Russian authorities. Last month, Russian investigators closed the case and claimed they had solved it, but declined to provide the evidence. They pinned the murder on the Chechen Nukhayev, concluding that Nukhayev ordered the killing because Mr. Klebnikov’s book “negatively spoke about [him] and criticized his statements.” Nukhayev is a fugitive; two suspects are already in custody. Many doubt that the Russians have solid evidence, however, and think the case was rushed for political reasons.

The Putin government could clear the air with a simple move: Order the police to release the evidence. The facts will speak for themselves. If the evidence is flimsy, of course, the case will need to be reopened.

Mr. Putin should take a personal interest in solving the Klebnikov murder to the satisfaction of Westerners. It’s clear enough from his crackdown on the Russian press that Mr. Putin isn’t serious about Western-style freedoms for Russians. But the Klebnikov case tests his attitude toward the West. Mr. Putin may well think Russia can enjoy economic freedoms while rejecting political freedoms. If he does, he is likely to let the Klebnikov case rest. Fortunately, Mr. Behar and Project Klebnikov will not.

Insofar as Russia wants to sit — as a democracy — at the table with Western democracies, it needs to get powerful and ruthless people in Russia to behave as though they live in a place where the rule of law prevails. That will be an ongoing effort. The West stands prepared to help battle Russia’s plague of corruption and organized crime. But if Russia stalls and dissembles even in cases where Western government are watching closely, its commitment to democracy and openness will be cast in doubt.

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