“I am moving on with a more profound understanding that, in Putin’s Russia, the criminals and the authorities have become one and the same.”
After a series of brutal murders of dissident journalists in Russia, Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, went to investigate. His disturbing report reveals how deeply the cancer of criminality has infected Putin’s society
In the West, the cases of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in her apartment block, and ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned by polonium in London last year, hit the headlines.
But in Russia, there was nothing exceptional about those killings. It’s long been understood that if you publish material that embarrasses or annoys those in power, you’re likely to come to a sticky end.
I know a bit about the way they do politics in this part of the world. I was the British Ambassador to the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan from 2002 until 2004, when I was sacked for revealing the Uzbek regime was involved in systematic torture and gave information that they gained in this way to MI6 via the CIA.
The current Russian regime under Vladimir Putin is just as savage. I travelled there to investigate the most recent spate of killings and meet those journalists who continue to risk their lives to expose corruption and crime.
Academic studies estimate that between 40 and 70 per cent of the Russian economy is controlled by criminals.
This situation dates back to the chaos of the original privatisation process, in which assets such as the oil industry were sold off for a tiny fraction of their value, often knowingly to criminals, who had been running a black private sector throughout the communist era.
Those in charge of Russia’s privatisation process believed the Leninist teaching with which they had been indoctrinated – that the early stages of capitalism are always criminal.
They therefore perversely accepted criminal involvement as a necessary part of the process. In the new millennium, President Putin did not confront the criminal oligarchs, many of whom he had built up a close relationship with while heading the KGB. Instead, as long as they supported him unquestioningly, he continued the process of their legitimisation while promoting loyal KGB men to senior positions.
Russia is now run by a strongly interlinked KGB and mafia elite. Both elements are equally vicious and ruthless. Eduard tried to use his position to reduce corruption and was promptly fired.
I am moving on with a more profound understanding that, in Putin’s Russia, the criminals and the authorities have become one and the same.
Back in Moscow, I visit the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations, which is fighting a losing battle to defend journalists against violence.
Analyst Mikhail Melnikov draws a pyramid and explains: ‘There are many killings but they are only the apex of the system of intimidation of journalists. This starts with threats and intimidation, moving on through sackings to severe beatings.’
Combined with Putin’s relentless concentration of the media into government hands, the resulting self-censorship means that investigative journalism has almost died out in a country where it is desperately needed.
In 2001 Russia’s only independent national TV station, NTV, was forcibly taken over by state energy company Gazprom on the direct instruction of Putin.
In all, five journalists have been murdered in Tagliatti, and a sixth died in a suspicious car crash. At the newspaper’s offices, they have developed a neat line in gallows humour. Deputy editor Rimma Mikhareva says cheerily: ‘I edit the copy, choose the photos, make the coffee and organise the funerals.’
Alexei Mironov believes that Putin gave the signal that led to the murders of his two predecessors. ‘When Putin closed down NTV, local authorities took it as a signal that the time of independent media in Russia was over and they could act against them,’ he says.
I am introduced to chief reporter Sergei Davidov, who has just won the Artem Borovik Prize for investigative journalism. Previous winners include Valeri Ivanov and Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered before she could accept the award.
Sergei doesn’t look scared and the paper isn’t backing down. The journalists have just forced the resignation of a judge after a series of articles on corrupt judgments in land allocation cases.
They acknowledge that the judge has already pocketed enough money for a very comfortable retirement. Still, small victories are rare and must be savoured.
As we smile and drink tea, I am painfully aware that I am looking at one of the last fading embers of freedom in Putin’s gangster state.