Three recent killings in Russia raise troubling questions about the rule of law in that country. The three incidents are not linked but that is not to say they are random killings: Investigations of the murders will probe the same murky corners where political and economic influence intersect. The realization of the modern Russian dream to reclaim its rightful place on the global stage may well depend on whether those investigations succeed in uncovering and punishing the killers and those who hired them.
The first murder claimed the life of Andrei Kozlov, first deputy chairman of the Central Bank of Russia who was assassinated on Sept. 14 as he climbed into his car after a soccer game. Kozlov was widely believed to have become a target as a result of his efforts to fight corruption in the Russian banking industry. He had closed a number of banks tied to money laundering and other illegal activities and was gunned down on the streets for his trouble.
The second killing targeted Enver Ziganshin, who was murdered in his sauna on Sept. 30 in Irkutsk. Ziganshin was chief engineer for Rusia Petroleum, a company partly owned by BP and which is developing an $18 billion project at the Kovyta natural gas fields, a huge find that is estimated to hold 2 trillion cubic meters of gas. The killing occurred less than a week after the Natural Resources Ministry announced it was going to review Rusia Petroleum’s license, challenging its compliance with environmental laws and whether it would be extracting the gas on schedule. At the same time, the company has come under pressure from Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly, and Rosneft, a government-backed oil company, both of which expressed interest in gaining control of the project.
The third killing occurred on Oct. 7, when noted Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot in the entrance to her apartment building in Moscow. Ms. Politkovskaya was an award-winning journalist and severe critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. She was best known for her fearless investigation of human-rights abuses in the Chechen war. Ms. Politkovskaya knew well the risks she faced. She was poisoned in 2004 as she traveled to Beslan, where Chechen rebels had taken hostages at a school; a botched rescue attempt would eventually claim more than 300 lives, many of them schoolchildren.
While there is nothing that links the three attacks, they all occurred at the nexus of political and economic power. Kozlov is believed to have been killed because he challenged the links between organized crime groups and the banking system that allowed them to launder their ill-gotten gains. Ziganshin’s killing was a signal that the Gazprom monolith would not be challenged at home and Russians would maintain control of their country’s valuable natural resources. Ms. Politkovskaya was a popular opponent of the Putin government and its policies in Chechnya. In other words, elements of the Russian power structure had an interest in seeing each of these individuals eliminated.
Cognizant of the stakes involved, Mr. Yuri Chaika, the prosecutor general of Russia, has assumed personal control of the investigations into the murders of Ms. Politkovskaya and the banker Kozlov. Since the Ziganshin killing occurred in Irkutsk, the local prosecutor’s office there is handling it. The murders of prominent individuals in broad daylight are ugly blots on the image of a modern and powerful Russia that Mr. Putin and his backers are urging on to the world. While it is unclear who ordered the killings, there are widespread doubts whether prosecutors will be willing and able to lead the investigations to their rightful conclusions. Equally troubling are fears in the business community aroused by the killings: It appears as though powerful economic and business interests have no interest in resolving their differences in courts or in the marketplace; they prefer the bullet to negotiations.
While this is plainly a Russian internal matter, the rest of the world should voice its concern. The murder of 12 journalists over six years — and none of the killings has yet been solved — is plainly an assault on a free and independent media, and an attempt to silence a critical voice in Russian society. An energetic and vocal press is exactly what Russia needs today to expose the tangled knots of official power and illegal influence. The killing of Anna Politkovskaya was more just a blow against an individual; it was an attempt to recalibrate the balance of power in Russia. The perpetrators cannot be allowed to succeed. Indeed, resolving these killings is one of the truest tests of Mr. Putin’s resolve and his real vision for his country.
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