Russia's whistle blower
Date: March 16, 2002
In Chechnya, there is now just one lone Russian voice remaining to chronicle the lives of those embroiled in the killing and corruption that have become the hallmark of President Putin's efforts to bring the province under the control of Moscow. Her name is Anna Politkovskaya, and she is not about to give up the fight
She is Russia's least wanted journalist. She's been held overnight in the torture cells she was investigating, threatened with rape, and received numerous death threats. Her reporting has stirred the wrath of Russia's most powerful and unfettered institutions - the Kremlin, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the GRU, the military intelligence. She has been forced to flee the country, work under the surveillance of round-the-clock police bodyguards. She has been accused of being a western agent. And yet she keeps on coming back for more. To be precise, she has returned to the land that has caused her so much trouble, Chechnya, 39 times.
It's not even as if Anna Politkovskaya is fighting a popular cause. Her theme - crime and punishment in Chechnya - is as unpopular at home as it is ignored abroad. Few Russians want to read about how 75,000 of their crack troops are mired in a conflict against 3,000 active rebel fighters (President Putin would like the world to believe that this is Russia's contribution to the post-September 11 global war on terror). Still less do they want to hear of atrocities carried out in their name by their own army, as their arch rival America spreads its military tentacles just across the mountains in Georgia.
Politkovskaya could have taken that fat research grant, settled in America and, like so many other generations of Russian dissidents, bemoaned her country's stillborn democracy from a safe distance. "I could not do that. There are practically no journalists working now in Chechnya," she says. Andrei Babitsky, the Russian reporter working for the US-run station Radio Liberty who stayed in Grozny under the Russian bombardment, was forced to flee to eastern Europe. Natalya Kononova, the Novye Izvestia correspondent, has gone into hiding in Russia. Two, formerly independent stations, NTV and TV6, have now fallen under the Kremlin's long shadow. That leaves Politkovskaya.
"So each time I go there, people tell me things. They do so in the sincere hope that, if I record what is actually happening, it will lead to change, to peace. Obviously, I am not to blame for what is going on, but the more I think about it, the more I would be betraying these people if I walked away. The only thing to do is to take this to the bitter end, so that no one can say that when things became difficult, I ran away."
She sits bolt upright in the subsiding foam chair, her eyes shining with intensity. She is on a mission.
The mountain Chechen clans have been battling their Russian neighbour since at least 1818, when a Russian general established a fortress called Groznaya, meaning "terrible" or "formidable", in a vain effort to subdue this wild North-West Frontier-type region. The Chechens survived Stalin's mass deportations. And since the break-up of the USSR in 1992, they have survived botched government by two Chechen leaders - first Dhokar Dudayev and then Aslan Maskhadov - both ex Soviet army officers who yet managed to bring the wrath of the whole Russian army down on their heads. The one constant is that they know what they're fighting for, or at least whom they're fighting against. There is misery in the land of howling dogs, distant booms and deep silences, but no surprise.
None of that collective ethnic memory applies to a Moscovite such as Politkovskaya. She is a child of good times, the Brezhnev era, when the Soviet Union was a world power and those fairy lights on the world map in the operations room of the KGB meant that their net was cast globally. Her parents were senior diplomats; she was part of the elite. For her family, Vladimir Putin is not a distant object of fear and veneration, but a former KGB staffer rather too lowly for them to have come across socially. So why does a 43-year-old mother of two grown-up children, separated from her husband, living in a flat in a privileged block on the Garden Ring in Moscow, put her life on the line for a faraway people who hate the Russians?
"I am not a war correspondent. All my working life I wrote about the state of our orphanages, our old people's homes. I was interested in reviving Russia's pre-revolutionary tradition of writing about our social problems. That led me to writing about the seven million refugees in our country. When the war started, it was that that led me down to Chechnya."
In 1998, Politkovskaya knew, like most of her compatriots, that something had to be done about Chechnya, whose persistent calls for autonomy and its complex ethnic and religious mix (Chechen/Russian and Muslim/Christian) had brought it once again into conflict with Moscow. In the two years since the withdrawal of Russian troops after the first round of fighting, it had become a haven for bandits and rival warlords beyond the control of its elected president, Maskhadov. When two of those warlords, Shamil Basayev and Khattab, invaded Dagestan, another member of the Russian Federation, to further their ambition of setting up a Muslim state across the North Caucasus, Russia had to react. "But it was the way they did it," says Politkovskaya. "It was clear to me it was going to be total war, whose victims were first and foremost going to be civilian."
And that is what she has been chronicling. Total war. Maskhadov generally believed to be a moderate, is up in the mountains leading the rebels; and Moscow has set up a puppet government in what remains of the capital, Grozny. Meanwhile, Russia enjoys voting rights as a member of the Council of Europe and, as a signatory to the European Convention For The Protection Of Human Rights, is answerable to the European Court of Human Rights.
As Politkovskaya foresaw, it is a dirty war. Take, for example, the minibus that in January this year was travelling between the villages of Shatoi and Nochkiloi during an operation known euphemistically as a "zachistka": a security sweep launched a week after a Russian military truck had been blown up by a landmine. There were six villagers on the bus, and the local Russian commander, who enjoyed reasonable relations with Chechens in his area, knew every one of them. There was Said Alaskhanov, the head teacher of the village school; Shaban Bachayev, a forester; Zahab Yavadhanova, a mother of seven children; Hamsad Toburov, the owner-driver; and two others. Nine members of Russian military intelligence (GRU) special forces, who had flown down from Khankala (the Russian military headquarters outside Grozny) had other ideas about the occupants of the bus.
The opening burst of fire killed three passengers, at which point the special force team realised that they had fired on unarmed civilians. Then they shot the rest. Afterwards, they set fire to the bus to make it look as if it had been hit by rebels. The villagers said that the six who perished left behind them 28 orphans. The GRU officers are under arrest - partially because of the testimony of another Russian officer, a major, whose life is now also under threat. It was this element of the story that Politkovskaya brought to light. She returned to Grozny in the wake of the mas sacre: when the bodyguards assigned to "protect" her, but who in fact monitored her every move, disappeared.
In another case, Politkovskaya revealed how a Russian major, indicted on criminal charges, turned up to answer the prosecutor's preliminary questions not with a lawyer but with his entire brigade."They set up their heavy mortar outside the military prosecutor's office in Grozny and told the prosecutor that if he did not let the major go, they would bring his building down. They let the major go."
"No one in the Russian military machine down there trusts each other," says Politkovskaya. "Moscow does not trust Khankala. Khankala does not trust the lads in Argun. That's what it's like down there. There is so much corruption, so much information leaks out, such as that when the pension money arrived in Gudermes [Chechnya's second city], it got hit by a rebel attack. An accident?" What she's getting at is that Russian military may be operating against each other - tipping off the rebels and sharing in the plunder.
The Chechen war was launched by Russia in order to establish "constitutional order". In fact, matters have got worse. Politkovskaya writes not least about the plight of Russian soldiers, themselves victims of the war. "To whom does a dead body belong?" she wrote in one of her early pieces. "Ask any normal person, and they will answer, without a moment's thought, 'To the relatives, of course, and no one else.' "
Try as he might, Colonel Slipchenko, the general director of Military Commemoration Limited, could not clearly formulate an answer to this question. Today, the remains of more than 400 soldiers and officers are still lying in unmarked graves somewhere in Chechnya, and several hundred other corpses are awaiting identification at Forensic Laboratory No 124 in Rostov-on-Don, but Slipchenko, a military man, finds nothing particularly shocking about this: "So they're lying there! We must work effectively, and not rush things. It'll take many years yet to finish the job."
These were the dead from the first war (1994-96), and the reason for Slipchenko's lack of haste was obvious. The longer the exhumations and identification took, the more money his company, a privatised arm of a state business, received from the federal budget.
"During the period that you have been receiving budget funds, has your company buried one of the soldiers whose remains were exhumed in Chechnya?"
"So what have you been doing with the money?"
"We are in possession of the entire database for soldiers missing in action."
"Could we take a look at your database?"
"No, it's a commercial secret."
In the absence of a functioning state, journalists such as Politkovskaya have become used to taking on the villains themselves. People such as the butcher in Semikarakorsk who flogs rotten meat to the army: "'You are a real bastard, aren't you? Are you really too thick to understand that your rotten meat may be the last thing one of those young soldiers ever eats?'" Politkovskaya reports herself as saying. And she proceeds to give the man's full name and telephone number so that readers could reach him.
Occasionally she bites off more than she can chew. In February last year, she visited a detention centre where Chechens were being tortured. She was detained overnight by the Russians and threatened with rape by senior officers. In September, six days after the attack on the World Trade Centre, Grozny was in a feverish state. The checkpoints were preventing anyone getting in or out of the city centre, not even bureaucrats with official passes. Politkovskaya was in the office of Stanislav Ilyasov, the Chechen prime minister, a Moscow placeman. He was striding up and down, grabbing telephone receivers, cursing the whole incomprehensible business. Only one-fifth of his civil servants had made it through for his regular Monday morning briefing.
A young Russian general sitting in his office, Anatoly Pozdnyakov, gave sympathetic nods, and it was obvious the two understood each other very well: it was time to put a stop to the lawless behaviour in the province. Pozdnyakov confided in Politkovskaya that he was that day returning to Moscow with a report he had written on corruption in Chechnya. He was the head of a new military investigative commission, acting, he said, on the personal orders of Putin. An hour after the interview, the general was dead. His helicopter, and his top secret report, were shot out of the sky by a Stinger missile directly over the city centre - which was unusually empty, thanks to the military at the checkpoints. "The official version," says Politkovskaya, "is that a Chechen fighter ran out on to the street, launched the missile and ran away. It could not have happened like that. He would have been shot the moment he popped his head out." Ten days after writing that it was, in fact, colonels in Chechnya who had shot down their own chief of staff, Politkovskaya, under threat of her life, was forced to flee the country.
Politkovskaya works for a small biweekly liberal newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. Its editor, Dmitri Muratev, breathes fire at the latest tactic invented by the state to silence Politkovskaya - a smear that she has been secretly working for, and paid by, western benefactors, including the Soros Foundation. "Well, we are suing the FSB [the Federal Security Service] for saying that. You must understand what our Chekisti, our KGB, have become." he said. "They think that Politkovskaya is Bin Laden. They don't have anything better to do than to pursue a newspaper and the grants it gets. Now they are threatening to withdraw her accreditation. If you read our constitution, there is nothing written there about the FSB. Nothing is said about their right to withdraw accreditation or to close newspapers. It's none of their bloody business. It is up to the courts to do that, and let them bloody well try."
This is what motivates them both."I am not fighting the FSB," says Politkovskaya. "I'm only doing my job. I explain to my readers what I see. The FSB, or whoever wants to fight with me, are fighting not with me but the constitutional principle that we should have freedom of press. It is obviously not terribly pleasant..." Her voice tails off. She remembers those gooks outside her window, hanging around in the courtyard. She remembers the comments of her neighbours, some of them regarding her as a traitor to Russia, or her son, Ilya, "looking under his car every single time he gets into it", believing his mother should pursue a less dangerous career. "But in time of war, I already learned to fight, never to surrender and to try to survive. I can say that now I really want to survive and stay strong. Up to the very end."
I tell her that her editor says he'd back her up to the very end, as well. She laughs: "That depends on what he means by the very end..."
Anna Politkovskaya has been nominated for the Most Courageous Defence of Freedom of Expression award, to be presented by Index On Censorship, on March 21.