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Russia: Where's Putin?


http://gdb.rferl.org/34ED2FA6-CC38-45D7-AEFF-B32E9D4FB50D_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/34ED2FA6-CC38-45D7-AEFF-B32E9D4FB50D_mw800_mh600.jpg The hearse carrying the body of Anna Politkovskaya makes its rose-strewn way toward the Troyekurovskoye cemetery in Moscow (epa) Expressions of sorrow and calls for justice have been heard from numerous world leaders and rights watchdogs since the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya on October 7. But in the days since Russian President Vladimir Putin has been largely silent, offering his first public comment only today.


MOSCOW, October 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- More than a thousand mourners today gathered at Moscow's Troyekurovskoye Cemetery for the funeral of Anna Politkovskaya, a woman many described as one of the country's bravest and most influential journalists.


"There have been other journalists in Russia who wrote the truth, but her voice sounded louder than anybody else's," Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko party, told RFE/RL's Russian Service.


In the end, Politkovskaya was killed because of her refusal to soften her criticism of the Kremlin, he believes.

"There have been other journalists in Russia who wrote the truth, but her voice sounded louder than anybody else's."

"She was not simply a political journalist; she was a political opponent of the authorities. In this case it is evident that they have destroyed a political opponent. The authorities have begun eliminating their political opponents physically."


Speaking at the funeral, Russia's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, echoed a call heard many times since Politkovskaya was gunned down in her apartment block in Moscow.


It was time, he said, for the state to take steps to keep its journalists safe from danger.


"I have many times drawn the attention of our authorities at the highest level to the fact that journalists are in a dire situation, that they should be protected," Lukin said. "Regrettably, the situation is not getting better."


Notable Absence


Anna Politkovskaya ("Novaya Gazeta")

Foreign diplomats, journalists, and members of Russia's rights community were among those gathered. No high-ranking Russian officials attended the funeral, however.


It was a notable absence amid worldwide condemnation of 48-year-old Politkovskaya's brutal murder.


As words of mourning and outrage continued to flow to Moscow, anger was brewing over Russian President Vladimir Putin's muted response.


Politkovskaya's killing has prompted statements from everyone from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to French President Jacques Chirac to Karel De Gucht, the chairman in office of the OSCE. Global journalism watchdog groups have joined in the calls for justice.


Even the target of some of her most critical reporting, Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, has publicly expressed regrets.


Why, then, has Politkovskaya's own president, Vladimir Putin, been nearly silent?


Critical Comparisons


Oleg Panfilov, the director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said he was "extremely upset" by Putin's behavior.

"He is showing that he is the president of only a part of this country's population, a part that didn't love Anna Politkovskaya, that hated her work, that hated her articles."

"He is showing that he is the president of only a part of this country's population, a part that didn't love Anna Politkovskaya, that hated her work, that hated her articles," Panfilov said. "I would like to cite the example of the French president, who after a French female journalist was taken hostage in Iraq immediately came back from his holiday and made a declaration."


On October 9, two human rights groups, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and the Moscow Helsinki Group, called on Putin to publicly condemn Politkovskaya's killing.


"The silence of President Putin suggests an attitude of complicity, or of indifference," the watchdogs said in a joint statement. "No one can accept that, after the country's leading media critic of the government has been murdered, apparently by a professional assassin, he keeps silent."


Too Little, Too Late?


Putin finally broke his silence shortly after that statement was released -- two days after the killing.


During a phone conversation initiated by U.S. President George W. Bush, Putin vowed to thoroughly investigate what he described as Politkovskaya's "tragic death." His comments were posted on the Kremlin's website.

"This person has a peculiar psychological trait: he disappears every time there is a crisis; he is obviously seized by some kind of political paralysis."

It was only today, October 10, that the Russian president offered a public comment on Politkovskaya. Speaking in the eastern German city of Dresden following a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin said the murder was a "disgustingly cruel crime that cannot go unpunished."


Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the director of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said Putin's slow response was a betrayal of his role as head of state.


"In such an exceptional case -- the murder of a world-renowned, admirable journalist -- the country's president should comment swiftly on such an incident," she said. "Russian citizens want to hear the president's opinion and whether he can guarantee the security of those journalists who try to follow in Anna Politkovskaya's footsteps, to be honest journalists."


Deconstructing Putin


It took President Putin five days to react publicly to the deaths of 118 submariners when "The Kursk" sank in August 2000 (ITAR-TASS)"

Some view the Russian president's failure to react quickly to the murder as a deliberate snub to Politkovskaya, who had fiercely attacked his policies in her articles.


But Boris Kagarlitsky, a respected political commentator, said this is not Putin's intention. Putin, he said, is simply incapable of handling disasters.


"This is Putin's typical reaction to any unpleasant news. He always reemerges only when the problem is more or less solved," Kagarlitsky said. "This person has a peculiar psychological trait: he disappears every time there is a crisis; he is obviously seized by some kind of political paralysis. Even when he understands that he needs to come out, say something and assume responsibility, he physically can't do it. I think this has more to do with his personality than with politics."


Putin has proven to be quick to react to crises in other countries. He was the first world leader to contact Bush after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.


At home, however, he has frequently come under criticism for his inaction in the face of tragedy.


In August 2000, when the Kursk submarine sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea with 118 men on broad, Putin waited for five days before he broke a holiday on the Black Sea to comment publicly on the disaster.


In the meantime, he had found time to send birthday greetings to a well-known actress.


He was also criticized for his slow response to the seizure of a Moscow theater in October 2002 and the Beslan school siege in September 2004.

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