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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Why Tlisova Left Russia

Writing in the Moscow Times Yulia Latynina (pictured), who hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio, one of the last bastions of opposition speech in Russia, tells the sad story of journalist Fatima Tlisova:

An article ran 11 days ago in London's Sunday Times about a Russian journalist requesting political asylum in the United States. Working under the pseudonym of Maria Ivanova, she is an expert on the Caucasus region and claims to have been poisoned last autumn.

Up until last Thursday, people unfamiliar with the specifics of the story were trying to guess her true identity. Those who knew the whole story, however, were praying for her life. This is because Fatima Tlisova -- former correspondent for Svoboda, Novaya Gazeta and The Associated Press, head of the North Caucasus bureau of the Regnum online news service and winner of numerous international awards -- was scheduled to fly last Thursday from Nalchik, in Kabardino-Balkaria, to the United States. She was then to fly out of Turkey on Wednesday for the United States, where she has won a two-year scholarship to study at Harvard.

The unwanted publicity caused by the article in the Sunday Times may have put Tlisova in greater danger four days prior to her flight. The source of the information is unclear, as she never spoke with the paper's reporters, and I know many journalists who kept silent to avoid putting her in danger.

Because of her professionalism, the security services saw the widowed mother of two as an enemy. Before her poisoning, her home had been searched, she had been detained by authorities, and articles appeared calling her a U.S. spy and a terrorist leader. Her fellow journalists were questioned and told that she was a Turkish spy.

Her colleagues only learned about these events through third parties, or after weeklong delays: Tlisova, a proud Circassian, had absolutely no desire to make waves or leave her native Kabardino-Balkaria. She just wanted to work honestly at her job.

At the end of last October, Tlisova returned home after an evening walk, applied face cream from an old cosmetics jar, had a cup of coffee, and went to sleep. In the morning, skin was peeling from her fingers and her tongue had become swollen. She was rushed to a local hospital, where she was diagnosed with kidney failure.

A week later her symptoms had disappeared. After comparing her test results with those taken at the onset of her symptoms just 10 days earlier, doctors at a Moscow clinic couldn't believe the results came from the same person.

A few weeks later, I talked with one of the government's highest-ranking officials for the North Caucasus. He knew all about Tlisova's case. Kabardino-Balkaria is, after all, a small republic, and Tlisova is well-known. Despite her almost pathological humility, these events had caused quite an uproar. The official said he thought very highly of Tlisova and her work. "I ordered them to leave Tlisova alone," he told me.

Two weeks after this discussion, a man knocked at Tlisova's door and asked: "Does Ruslan Nakhushev live here?"

Nakhushev is a human rights activist from Kabardino-Balkaria who disappeared without a trace after he was interrogated by the Federal Security Service. Tlisova knew him well. It is events like this that suggest that the FSB has more to do with running the country than the civil authorities.

I think Tlisova's poisoning was a warning. When she failed to heed that warning and leave, she was "warned" again. The second poisoning affected both her heart and her kidneys. After that, the AP arranged for her to work in the United States as part of a two-year professional exchange program. And so it was that the journalist I consider to be the leading expert on the Caucasus left the country.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for the country to prove that the Caucasus is a good place to invest. For that matter, it is also having trouble proving that self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky was involved in the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the poisoning of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko.

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