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Russian Leader's Honors To Critical Journalists Raise Eyebrows

  • Lyubov Chizhova

As a result of the 2008 attack that nearly killed him, Mikhail Beketov lost one-third of his brain, a leg, and three fingers and is unable to speak or type.

As a result of the 2008 attack that nearly killed him, Mikhail Beketov lost one-third of his brain, a leg, and three fingers and is unable to speak or type.

MOSCOW -- For three years, Mikhail Beketov has been a symbol of the impunity with which journalists critical of the Russian authorities could be silenced. But now Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has recognized Beketov's contribution to civil society with a state award and a 1 million-ruble ($32,000) prize.

Beketov's name appeared among those of 10 journalists -- mostly critical reporters and editors from nonstate publications -- on a list of prize laureates that was quietly posted on the Russian government's website on October 31.

The announcement has independent journalists and civil-society activists wondering whether they should accept such honors -- and the cash -- from the person they view as the architect of the authoritarian political system they have been battling.

Although the list of honorees includes such well-known journalists as Sergei Parkhomenko and Irina Petrovskaya, Beketov's case has attracted the most attention.

On November 13, 2008, Beketov -- the uncompromising editor of a newspaper in the Moscow suburb of Khimki -- was found unconscious and bleeding on the ground near his apartment building. He was in a coma -- having been beaten to within an inch of his life and then left lying in the cold for nearly two days before he was found.

Three years later, the case remains unsolved, but supporters are convinced the attack was ordered because of his critical reporting on corruption in the local administration of Khimki.

Beketov himself is in extremely poor health and undergoing constant treatment in Israel. Khimki activist and Beketov colleague Yevgenia Chirikova says Beketov lost one-third of his brain, a leg, and three fingers from the attack and is unable to speak or type.

Award From 'Creator Of The System'

Khimki activist Yevgenia Chirikova has herself been persecuted for opposing the highway plan.

Khimki activist Yevgenia Chirikova has herself been persecuted for opposing the highway plan.

Chirikova -- who herself has been persecuted for her activism in opposition to the construction of a highway through the protected Khimki forest -- is unimpressed with the Russian government's decision to honor Beketov.

"The man bestowing this prize [Putin] is one of the creators of a system in which an activist can be smashed over the head and end up an invalid for the rest of his life," Chirikova says.

"And it is in that very system that the man who we believe 'ordered' the attack on Mikhail remains in power [Khimki Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko], runs the city, continues his construction projects, and has not undergone any punishment for his actions."

People close to Beketov say he has not yet been informed about the award.

"Kommersant" quoted the head of the Russian Union of Journalists, which recommended the prize winners to the government, as saying that the jury voted overwhelmingly to include Beketov, who was nominated by the independent newspaper "Novaya gazeta."

'Absolutely Unacceptable Political Cynicism'

Sergei Parkhomenko, editor of the magazine "Around The World," was also among those honored by Putin. Parkhomenko -- who in the 1990s was the founder and editor of the respected daily "Segodnya" that was closed down in the early days of Putin's presidency -- says he will accept his prize on behalf of his magazine but will donate the money to charity. He adds that he will not attend the presentation ceremony in the Kremlin.

But he's also critical of the decision to honor Beketov. "I think this is a mockery and a manifestation of absolutely unacceptable political cynicism," Parkhomenko says. "A man who was crippled because of his opposition to the Russian authorities is now getting a handout from them."

Parkhomenko adds that the prize might have been more useful for Beketov's colleagues who are still working.

Valery Yakov, editor of the often-critical daily "Novye izvestia," was also on the government's list and says he will accept the prize. "Probably, I would have been uncomfortable if the list of laureates included people that I don't respect much," he says. "But when I heard the names of Mikhail Beketov, Ira Petrovskaya, and Sergei Parkhomenko, I was pleased because I respect these journalists and being in the same rank with them does not discredit my name, my work, or the position of the newspaper in any way."

Yakov adds that he interprets the prize as the government's acknowledgment that his newspaper's criticism of its policies is "fair and objective."

Political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky says he believes Putin issued the awards largely to boost his image in the West in the wake of his recent decision to seek a return to the presidency.

Activist Aleksei Simonov, the longtime president of the Glasnost Foundation, says he won't criticize Beketov if he accepts the money, "because he is undergoing treatment in Israel, where they are trying to help him speak again. Each day there costs him more than $1,000, so he really needs this prize."

Fellow Khimki activist Chirikova says the prize is too little, too late. "If this prize is enough money to return one-third of a man's brain, return his leg somehow, give him his fingers back, allow him to work once again, then that would be great," she says. "But if not, if it isn't enough money, then for me, to be honest, it is just a cynical game."

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this story from Prague

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