David Frum November 25th, 2006 at 12:00 am
Alexander Litvinenko, who died horribly in a London hospital on Thursday, is only the latest critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet a brutal death.
On October 7, another critic, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the lobby of her Moscow apartment building. Two years earlier, in July 2004, the U.S. journalist Paul Klebnikov was murdered as he emerged from the offices of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. These killings and many others are linked to the deepest mystery of the Russian state. The mystery is the rise of Vladimir Putin.
In 1998, Vladimir Putin was named head of the Russian secret police, the KGB, now renamed the FSB. In August 1999, a desperately unpopular Boris Yeltsin named Putin prime minister of Russia–the fifth prime minister in less than 18 months. There seemed little reason to expect Putin to last any longer than his predecessors.
Then the bombs started going off. The first bomb hit a Moscow mall on August 31, 1999, killing one person and wounding 40. Five more bombs followed over the next 17 days, striking apartment buildings in Moscow and in southern Russia. Nearly 300 people were killed.
Prime Minister Putin blamed Chechen separatists, and ordered Russian troops to reconquer the province, which had won de facto independence in a bloody war from 1994 to 1996. This time, Russian arms won more success. Putin called a snap parliamentary election in December, 1999, and his supporters won the largest bloc of seats in Parliament.
On December 31, 1999, president Yeltsin resigned. Prime Minister Putin succeeded as acting president. He granted Yeltsin and his family immunity from prosecution on corruption charges and shifted Russia’s next presidential election–originally scheduled for the fall of 2000–forward to March. Putin won handily.
Next he acted to reduce the power of the provinces, to renationalize private enterprise, and to close independent media outlets. Backed this time by the full power of the state and state-controlled media, Putin won 71 percent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election.
Despite Putin’s enormous personal power, however, questions still linger about the means by which he won it. In addition to the six bombs that went off in September 1999, there was a seventh that did not detonate. On September 22, 1999, local police in the city of Ryazan discovered sacks of explosives in the basement of an apartment house. They found something else, too: a record at the local phone company of a phone call to one of the would-be bombers. The call originated at the FSB offices in Moscow.
After a two-day pause, the FSB explained that Ryazan police had stumbled across an FSB training exercise. The FSB took charge of the investigation, declared the sacks harmless, and quietly closed the case the week after Putin’s election to the Russian presidency.
Meanwhile, the war in Chechnya weltered on bloodily. Most Russian journalists got the message that it was better for their health to focus on other subjects–but not Anna Politkovskaya. Despite an attempted poisoning in 2004, she filed story after story about human rights abuses by Russian forces and the Putin-installed pro-Russian government in Chechnya. At the time of her death, she claimed to have found evidence of state-ordered torture in Chechnya. Any such evidence has now vanished: All her files and computers were seized by police investigating her death.
There is a Chechen link to the Klebnikov killing, too. At the time of his death, Klebnikov had been working on a story about the theft by Russian officials of funds for the reconstruction of Chechnya. In May, 2006, a Russian jury acquitted the two men indicted for Klebnikov’s murder. By remarkable coincidence, the same jury had previously acquitted the same two men for killing one of Klebnikov’s most important sources, a former deputy prime minister in the pro-Russian Chechen government.
As for Alexander Litvinenko, his offense was to have published in 2002 a book arguing that the September 1999 bombings were orchestrated by the FSB to bring Putin to power.
Measured by the number of stories posted and published in the world’s English-language media (5,000 and counting as of Friday afternoon), the assassination of Pierre Gemayel in Lebanon was the week’s top story. And yet in one way at least there is nothing very surprising about this story: Gemayel’s probable killers are the rulers of Syria, an officially designated state sponsor of terrorism.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia, by contrast, is a member of the G8, a veto-wielder at the United Nations Security Council, an honored participant in international summits and conferences.
If this supposed ally in the War on Terror is being run by assassins and bombers, isn’t that a fact that deserves attention–to put it mildly?