The Clan Wars and the Politkovskaya Case

politkovskaya1007.jpgThe New York Review of Books has published a review of the film Letter to Anna: The Story of Journalist Politkovskaya’s Death, written by Amy Knight. You can order a copy of the DVD of this documentary here. The trailer is here.

By the time of Chaika’s announcement—over ten months after the murder—the investigation of the Politkovskaya killing was falling apart. The names of the suspects had already been leaked to the press, thus hampering efforts to successfully prosecute them. More importantly, Chaika himself was no longer in charge of the case; it had been handed over to a new “investigative committee,” which was part of the prosecutor’s office, but not under Chaika’s jurisdiction. The committee had been formed as the result of a bitter feud between Putin’s two main security chiefs, FSB director Nikolai Patrushev and Viktor Cherkesov, the head of the Drug Control Agency.

Both men were Putin loyalists from the St. Petersurg KGB, but competition for power and Kremlin riches, as well as the uncertainty over what would happen when Putin stepped down as president, fueled a conflict involving these and other powerful Putin deputies. Putin reportedly had long been trying to balance the powers of the two security chiefs, to prevent either from prevailing, but the conflict became more intense. The feud emerged publicly just around the time of Politkovskaya’s murder in the fall of 2006, when, with Chaika’s approval, a group of Patrushev’s FSB officers were arrested on corruption charges by agents from Cherkesov’s Drug Control Agency. In retaliation, Patrushev and his Kremlin allies managed later to undercut the Cherkesov–Chaika group by establishing the investigative committee, with their handpicked candidate, a prosecutor named Aleksander Bastrykin, as its head.With the support of the Patrushev group, Bastrykin’s investigative committee wrested control of the Politkovskaya case (along with the Klebnikov, Kozlov, and Litvinenko cases) from Prosecutor General Chaika. In early September 2007, Chaika’s main investigator on the Politkovskaya case was demoted, and several new investigators were brought in. Nine months later, in June 2008, a representative from the investigative committee announced that the case was ready to go to court. But after numerous arrests and reports that a large group of criminals were involved in various aspects of the murder, the government ended up with only four men still in custody. Three were charged as accomplices to the killing: a former MVD officer and two brothers of Chechen nationality. The fourth detainee, FSB Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov, was being held on lesser charges—abuse of office and extortion in connection with the case. A brother of the two Chechens in custody, Rustam Makhmudov, said to have been the one who shot Politkovskaya, was still at large. In early July, Bastrykin announced that the killer was somewhere in Western Europe but gave no explanation about how he had managed to escape Russia.As for who gave the order to have Politkovskaya killed—the most important question—the investigative committee offered no answers, leaving others to speculate. Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruthless warlord of Chechnya—shown in Berkgraut’s film celebrating his birthday last year with elaborate fanfare like a mini-Stalin—might seem an obvious suspect. In an apparent effort to end speculation about his involvement in the murder, Kadyrov boasted that “if she [Politkovskaya] had bothered us, we would have done it long ago.” But because he rules under the command of the Kremlin, he would never have dared to embark on such a bold venture on his own, either in Chechnya or Moscow. As a Chechen who now lives in exile told me, Kadyrov is authorized to kill only his own people. It is unlikely that Moscow would have given Kadyrov approval to murder Politkovskaya, or to have enlisted his assistance in the crime, because Putin and his colleagues view him as reckless and untrustworthy. (That doesn’t exclude the possibility that some of Kadyrov’s henchmen were involved, however.[5])