MEDDLING IN RUSSIAN COURT CASES – PART V – POLITKOVSKAYA

This last in a series of posts concerning outside interference in Russian court cases is something of an anomaly since I am writing about proceedings that have not yet properly speaking begun.  However given the amount of attention the Politkovskaya case has attracted I think it would be odd if I did not discuss it.

Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist working for the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.  Her dislike not to say loathing of the Russian government and of Vladimir Putin and the pro Russian Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov in particular strongly coloured her journalism but earned her a substantial following in the west though not in Russia itself were she was little known.  As I have gradually come to realise many of the articles that appear in the western press about Russia are essentially reproductions of articles that have previously appeared in Novaya Gazeta and in the other main Russian opposition newspaper The Moscow Times.  As a long established journalist working for Novaya Gazeta Politkovskaya came to be a prime source of news and comment about Russia for western journalists based in Moscow and so it is not surprising that she developed something of a following amongst them.

On 2nd October 2006, which happens to be Putin’s birthday, Politkovskaya was murdered outside her apartment.  The result was an immediate international outcry.  Western governments, the western media, human rights agencies, the staff of Novaya Gazeta and the rest of Russia’s liberal opposition united in condemning the murder and in holding the Russian government as in some way responsible for it.  Candle lit vigils took place in various western cities and on a visit to Dresden Putin was confronted by an angry crowd who branded him a murderer.  Putin was also roundly criticised for saying that Politkovskaya was little known in Russia, though this happened to be true.  The international news media and the internet rapidly filled with various stories about the case together with dark and sinister theories about who was responsible for Politkovskaya’s death.  In the weeks and months that followed and indeed for several years after the Russian authorities found themselves on the receiving end of angry demands, many of them from western governments, that they solve the crime and apprehend the killers with the implication that they would be assumed to be protecting the killers if they did not.  These demands were typically accompanied with commentaries in the western press and in the websites of western human rights agencies about how political murders in Russia are supposedly never solved, which as it happens is untrue.

I always found these demands for the arrest and punishment of Politkovskaya’s killers and for a solution of the mystery sinister and absurd.  No police agency is ever in a position to guarantee that a particular crime will be solved and it is unreasonable to demand such a thing. By way of example the British police have failed to solve the murder of the BBC journalist Jill Dando whose killing outside her house several years bears a striking resemblance to the way in which Politkovskaya was killed.  In addition it is a well known fact that inappropriate pressure on the police to achieve a particular outcome in a case substantially increases the risk of a miscarriage.  This by the way happened in the Jill Dando case when media pressure on the police led to the arrest and wrongful conviction of a mentally ill man who was subsequently proved to have been innocent.

I have no doubt that many of the people who demanded that the Russian authorities “solve” the Politkovskaya case did so in the confident belief that the case would not in fact be solved.  It is not too cynical to say that in many cases this was not merely a belief but also a wish.  An unsolved crime allows room for speculation and for theories to thrive however bizarre those theories might be.  A solved crime does not.

In the event to everyone’s astonishment in August 2007, less than a year after the murder, Russia’s senior law officer, the Procurator General Yuri Chaika, announced a breakthrough in the case and said that Politkovskaya had been killed by a gang of criminals consisting of a Chechen family who were assisted by a number of corrupt law enforcement officers.  Since then there have been more arrests but basically the account of the murder given by the Procurator General in August 2007 has stood up well.  The final breakthrough came a few weeks ago when the person who allegedly fired the shot that killed Politkovskaya, who had fled to Belgium, was arrested by the Russian police in Chechnya where he had fled.  Apparently this arrest was made with the help of the Belgian authorities. 

Though the case has not yet come to trial several of the individuals involved have apparently confessed their part in the murder allowing the Russian authorities to reconstruct it in detail and to identify the role of each of those involved in it. Apparently the Russian authorities even know the price paid by the person who ordered the murder (apparently $2 million) and the place in the Ukraine where the order for the murder was given.  They have also hinted that they know the identity of the person who ordered the murder, though they have not disclosed it.  As this person apparently lives abroad it seems that for the moment he is beyond their reach.  With the investigation now largely complete it seems that the trial is now only weeks or possibly months away.

One might have expected that this news would be well received in the west.  In fact nothing could be further from the truth.  Though the progress of the investigation has been widely reported in Russia in the west it has been largely ignored.  For years after the Procurator General’s announcement the western media and western human rights agencies continued to report Politkovskaya’s case as if it was still a total mystery.  Though the Russian authorities announced several years ago that the suspected hitman was hiding in the west the western media showed absolutely no interest in tracking this man down or in discovering his whereabouts or who his associates were or who might be protecting or hiding him.  Nor has the western media shown the slightest interest in finding out who the person who the Russian authorities think ordered Politkovskaya’s killing is or what the evidence against this person is.

Whilst the western media has largely ignored the official investigation for a time it gave a disproportionate amount of attention and encouragement to an “investigation” of the murder supposedly carried out by the staff of Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper Politkovskaya had worked for.  I remember some years ago switching on an ITN documentary into the “investigation of Politkovskaya’s murder” only to find that this was not the official investigation being carried out by the Russian police and judicial authorities but the unofficial investigation carried out by Novaya Gazeta.

Anyone who has any knowledge of law enforcement knows how utterly disastrous such amateur parallel “investigations” are.  The only thing they ever do is confuse witnesses and muddle evidence whilst wasting police time by throwing up false leads.  Judging from the documentary this was exactly what was happening in the Politkovskaya case with the Novaya Gazeta “investigation” producing nothing of value but making lots of fanciful claims and wild allegations against various important people who seemed to have no connection to the case.

The damage all this was doing became clear at a preliminary trial of two of the more junior members of the gang.  What was in essence a very straightforward case was thrown into complete confusion by a mass of muddled claims and testimony made by the lawyers who were purportedly representing Politkovskaya’s family but who actually appeared to be briefed by Novaya Gazeta.  Though I followed this trial quite closely I was never able to work out whether these lawyers and their clients thought the two defendants were guilty or innocent.  Subsequently it turned out that they did think that the defendants were guilty but nonetheless wanted them acquitted on the remarkable grounds that the conviction of the two defendants would provide the authorities with an excuse to end further investigation of the case on the pretext that it had been solved. As I remember the western reporters who were covering this trial found nothing odd or untoward in this convoluted not to say paranoid logic.  

Not surprisingly the jury became completely confused and delivered an acquittal verdict though because of the chaotic way in which the trial was conducted this verdict has been subsequently overturned by Russia’s Supreme Court, which has ordered a re trial.  I understand that following the recent arrest of the chief hitman the Russian authorities now intend to try these two defendants together with the other defendants in a single trial.

Since the debacle of the trial matters have moved on and I understand that even Novaya Gazeta now accepts that Politkovskaya’s case has been solved and has accepted the results of the official investigation.  That is still not the case in the west.  In contrast to the saturation coverage the murder received when Politkovskaya was killed the recent developments in the case have been almost entirely ignored.  The Wikipedia entry on the murder, whilst full of irrelevant detail and speculation, mentions none of the recent developments and appears to be months or even years out of date, which is incredible in a case that has attracted so much attention.  

There is of course a reason for this silence.  The Politkovskaya case has not gone to script.  Not only has the case been solved but it has been solved in a way that disproves the claims made about it.  Though the motive for the murder will not be known until the person who ordered it is brought to trial we already know enough about the murder to be able to say with confidence that none of the farfetched and fantastic theories that circulated following the murder were true.  Rather than acknowledge this fact, the western media after first reporting the case in a way that was calculated to undermine and obstruct the official investigation, has now fallen silent about it. 

I am sure I am not the only person who finds all this manipulative and cynical.  I had not heard of Politkovskaya until her murder and I am distinctly unimpressed by such of her reporting as I have read.  Nonetheless she was someone who undoubtedly believed in the cause she espoused.  It seems an odd way to honour her memory to let her case disappear down a memory hole now that its outcome no longer seems convenient.  In the meantime perhaps those who once wrote so much about it ought to ask themselves whether what they wrote in the end helped or hindered the quest to bring her murderers to justice.

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MEDDLING IN RUSSIAN COURT CASES – PART IV – KHODORKOVSKY AGAIN

A few weeks after I wrote my last post concerning Khodorkovsky, another part of his case came before the European Court of Human Rights.  This concerned the seizure  by the Russian authorities of Yukos, Khodorkovsky’s oil company, following his arrest on charges of company fraud and tax evasion.

On this occasion the Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights was even stronger. Whilst a majority of the Court’s Judges found that there had been serious procedural errors in the way the Russian authorities went about the case, the Judges unanimously rejected the central charge made  by Khodorkovsky and his supporters that the seizure of Yukos was politically motivated.  On the contrary on this occasion the Judges made clear their belief that Yukos and Khodorkovsky had indeed been engaged in the massive tax fraud the Russian authorities had alleged and said that given the size of the fraud the Russian authorities’ seizure of Yukos was proportionate and appropriate.  This incidentally almost certainly puts paid to any hope of the Yukos shareholders winning anything like the $98 billion compensation they are claiming in separate proceedings they have brought against the Russian government in connection with its seizure of Yukos.

In other words everything the Russian authorities have said over the last ten years about Khodorkovsky and Yukos has turned out to be true and everything that has been said about the case by western governments, human rights agencies, the media and Khodorkovsky himself has turned out to be false.  Notwithstanding this not a single government, agency, newspaper or person who previously expressed support for Khodorkovsky has admitted error or expressed any sort of apology for what was previously said or for any of the criticism that was previously made.  As before the Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights has been barely reported.  The Economist on this occasion did report the Judgment though in a very grudging way making it clear that it thought the Judgment wrong.  Needless to say the Economist would have expressed no such doubts had the Judgment gone the other way and would have ridiculed anyone who tried to take issue with what it would have said was the considered Judgment of the Court.    

What this silence means is that no lessons will be learnt from this affair.  Instead though the facts in the single most important case to have happened in Russia in recent years say the opposite western commentators will continue to say that Russia suffers from a culture of “legal nihilism” and that Russian courts are under political control.  Indeed the Guardian  says this very thing in an editorial it has published today.  In the meantime corrupt businessmen in Russia will continue as they have always done in the knowledge that if the Russian authorities move against them they will find a ready audience in the west for the claim that they are the victims of political oppression.  Such efforts as the Russian authorities make to deal with the problem of corruption in their country are thereby made more complicated even as the west criticises them for their supposed failure to deal with corruption.  The rule of law, which the west claims to support, is as a result undermined and the bad image of Russia created by the Khodorkovsky case, as it turns out on a false basis, will remain in place.

BRITISH MEDIA RESPONSE TO PUTIN’S BID FOR RE ELECTION

If one had to identify the single most successful political leader of any country over the last decade the name “Vladimir Putin” should logically stand out.  Since he first appeared on the national and world stage in 1999 Russia’s dollar denominated GDP has increased sevenfold, the living standards of its people have increased in step, the country has successfully navigated its way through the world economic crisis, has fought two victorious wars including one against a jihadi insurgency (something no western country has managed), has paid off its debts and accumulated the world ‘s third largest foreign currency reserves, has the lowest level of state and personal debt in proportion to GDP of any major economy, has averted a demographic crisis and has reasserted itself on the world stage forging a network of alliances with some of the world’s most powerful countries including India, China and Brazil.

Given this record, which no other leader in recent memory can remotely hope to match, why is it surprising or disturbing that Putin should be Russia’s most popular politician?Why also, given that Putin is relatively young and in excellent health, is it “anti democratic” and sinister that he should want to stand for President again when there is no legal or constitutional bar to prevent him doing so? 

I ask my last two questions in response to the universal reaction of the British press to Putin’s announcement.  Without exception this has been one of horror.  Every single British newspaper and media agency has condemned Putin’s announcement reflecting the monolithic quality that British reporting of Russia has now acquired.  The most unpleasant commentary has been in the Guardian, which persists in repeating insinuations that Putin’s action is motivated by a desire to protect his corruptly gained wealth even though when identical allegations were made in 2007 on the eve of Russia’s previous Presidential elections they were shown to be untrue   

A leader like a guest can overstay his welcome and there is a clear danger that Putin may do so.  Having said this I cannot see anything in this news that remotely justifies the apocalyptic commentary I have been reading.  To answer a particular point that is repeatedly made, though it is overwhelmingly likely that Putin will be re elected, the reason for this is not because Russia is a dictatorship or an autocracy or a “managed democracy” (an expression Putin has never used) or because Russians are sheep but because as a result of his record Putin remains massively popular with Russian voters.  The elections in December and March are not formalities and the opponents Putin and his party will face in those elections are not token opponents.  I believe I am right in saying that Russia’s biggest opposition party, the Communist Party of Russia, is still Russia’s biggest party in terms of membership.  In addition it regularly wins millions of votes in elections, has representatives in almost every elected body of state power from the smallest council to the national parliament and in Gennady Zyuganov  has a leader whose political career began long before Putin’s. Notwithstanding all this it might as well exist on the moon for all the attention it gets in the British press.

Which brings me to my main point.  Whose interest does this sort of reporting serve?  If the purpose of reporting is to inform then the uniformity of British reporting of Russia shows that this is not happening.  Even those who disagree with my perspective of Russia ought to be alarmed by the fact that the British press reports only one view.  Experience shows that the possibility of error is greatest precisely when there is only one permitted view. 

As a matter of fact it is not difficult to show that the one consistent feature of British reporting and writing about Russia is that it has been proved to be invariably and consistently wrong.  Thus the consensus in Britain in 1917 was that there would be no revolution, in the 1920s that Russia’s recovery from the Revolution was impossible, in the 1930s that industrialisation would fail, in 1939 that a Russian German rapprochement was impossible, in 1941 that Russia would be defeated by Germany in two months, in the 1950s that Russia was simultaneously planning to conquer the world and would be unable to sustain the arms race, in the 1970s that reform was impossible, in the early 1990s that Russia would become another liberal capitalist democracy, in 1999 that Russia would lose the Second Chechen War and throughout the later 1990s and for the second time in a century that its recovery was impossible .  In the meantime every single attempt by a British statesman (eg. Churchill in the 1950s, Wilson in the 1970s, Thatcher in the 1980s or very tentatively Cameron today) to achieve a fundamental improvement in relations with Russia comes to nothing.  Given that what the British think they know about Russia they know about a country they have largely imagined and which does not in fact exist there is nothing surprising about that.