Craig Murray, author of Murder In Samarkand, was the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from 2002-2004, when he was dismissed for espousing controversial views about the government there. Writing in This London, Murry reports on his investigation of the recent spate of obvoiusly political murders in Vladimir Putin's Russia. His report highlights, once again, how Russians have given themselves the worst of all possible worlds: All the criminality they should have avoided by having a KGB spy as president, and all the dicatorship one would expect from such a regime.
One Friday two months ago, Ivan Safronov, defence correspondent of the authoritative Kommersant newspaper in Moscow, made his way home from work. After a mild winter, Moscow had turned cold in March and Safronov held a bag of groceries in one hand while keeping his coat closed against the snow with his other. Arriving at the entrance to his grim Soviet-era apartment block, Safronov punched in the security code which opened the grey metal door at the entrance to the gloomy hallway.
So far this is a perfectly normal Moscow scene. But then – and this is the official version of events – Ivan Safronov apparently did something extraordinary. He walked up the communal stairs, past his second-floor apartment to the top landing between the third and fourth floors. Then, placing his groceries on the floor, he opened a window, climbed on to the sill and leapt to his death, becoming around the 160th (nobody can be certain of precise numbers) journalist to meet a violent end in post-communist Russia.
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.
Safronov, 51, had built a reputation as a highly professional, meticulous journalist. Over the years many of his articles had embarrassed the Kremlin, revealing the scale of bullying, prostitution and suicide among Russia's conscripted armed forces, and the high-level corruption that deprives troops of adequate clothing, rations and equipment. He had recently returned from an arms fair in Dubai, attended by senior representatives of Russia's armed forces and defence industries, and told colleagues he had learnt something there about corruption in major contracts, involving exports to Syria, Iran and other destinations. He told his editor he had a big story' but, as usual, he was carefully checking his facts first.
Now his story will never be published. On a grey morning, I walk through the drizzle to a police station opposite Safronov's apartment. The officer in charge is brusque. There are no suspicious circumstances and the case is closed. Why am I wasting his time and trying to cause trouble? He threatens to arrest me, so I beat a hasty retreat. Near Safronov's home, unkempt drunks swig cheap vodka from the bottle. I look up at the window from which Safronov fell. It doesn't look terribly high. Outside the block entrance, I stop and look down at the ground on which he landed – the surface is an uneven patchwork of brick, concrete, asphalt and mud. This is where a group of young men found Safronov, conscious but unable to speak. It took almost three hours for an ambulance to arrive. According to Kommersant deputy editor Ilya Bilyanov, although Safronov was clearly alive when he was finally taken away, he was declared dead on arrival at hospital.
A stout woman beating her rugs in the rain gives me the combination to enter the building. Once through the heavy metal door, I am overwhelmed by the smell of fresh paint which has been thickly applied to the walls, ceilings, rails, doors and window frames, as though to cover over any trace of recent events. The window from which Safronov allegedly threw himself is certainly quite easy to open and clamber out of, but it is a bad choice for a suicide. Soviet flats have low ceilings and I calculate the window is a maximum height of 26ft above the ground. Why not choose somewhere high enough to make death instant? The very next apartment block, for example, is two storeys higher. As I peer from the window I realise that, jumping from here, you are almost certain to hit the porch roof 20ft below. Police claim that marks in the snow on the porch roof were firm evidence that Safronov jumped. Two middle-aged women pass with their shopping. I explain that I am investigating Safronov's death; it seems an improbable suicide. Very strange,' they agree. Very, very strange.' They tell me Safronov was a pleasant man, had a good wife, did not drink excessively and was looking forward to the imminent birth of a grandchild. Plainly, everything they say is questioning the official version, but they do not wish to do so openly. Ilya Bilyanov, Safronov's boss, is more categorical. He was a devoted family man, very protective of his wife and daughter and proud of his son, about to start university. Bilyanov says: He could not have killed himself. He loved his family too much to abandon them.'
Life is cheap in modern Russia but two days later I am reminded of the flip side of this: a capacity for individual heroism. I meet Tatiana Markevich, who was teaching at a primary school in September 2001 when she received a message that her journalist husband, Eduard, had been murdered. I just didn't want to believe it. We had always feared this might happen but still you hope there's a mistake,' Tatiana tells me.
Eduard Markevich, the 30-year-old editor of a local newspaper, Novyy Reft, in the Urals town of Reftinsky, was shot dead at point-blank range with a shotgun as he got into his car. Tatiana had the heartbreaking task of explaining the news to their three-year-old son. She comforted him until 2am, when the boy finally fell into a deep sleep. Then she set to work. There was a newspaper to edit, a newspaper she had co-founded with her husband. She finished the edition at 8am, took her son to her mother's home and drove to her school, apologising for being slightly late. That is the kind of determination required of those trying to keep media freedom alive in Russia.
Eduard grew up near Chernobyl but after the disastrous explosion of its nuclear plant in 1986, the family were evacuated 2,000 miles east to Asbest in the Urals. The town got its name from the world's largest asbestos plant. Accommodation and an allowance had been provided for the evacuated Chernobyl families but Eduard's father discovered that both were being stolen by corrupt Asbest officials. Eduard grew into a bright young economist and in the mid-Nineties, aged just 23, he was in charge of reform and privatisation in the district. But he watched in horror as the region's industrial assets fell into the hands of criminals, in league with corrupt officials.
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. So, aged just 25, he started an independent newspaper dedicated to exposing the abuses of the authorities and the mafia in his region. His old contacts within government and disgruntled workers from asset-stripped factories gave him plenty to publish and his newspaper became popular and influential. One of its many campaigns revealed the appalling conditions under which asbestos and power-plant staff worked and the terrible illnesses, particularly lung disease, affecting them. In the week of his death the paper's lead story was about the management of large prison camps for young offenders in the region. The corrupt governor of the camps had been illegally hiring out many teenagers to private firms to labour on construction sites, working in appalling conditions. There had been several deaths on the sites. The fees, meanwhile, had gone straight into the governor's pocket. Tatiana admits many people wanted her husband dead but she is convinced his death was connected to the prison story.
Local police reacted quickly and soon detained a stranger who could not account convincingly for his presence in the area. Police later established he was a known mafia killer and he had a shotgun in his car. But ten days later the man was released on the authority of the regional procurator, who stated there was no evidence against him. I have no doubt local police had the killer and somebody higher wanted to protect him,' says Sergei, a regional representative of the Russian Union of Journalists. Tatiana continued to produce the newspaper for a year, despite threats to her and her son. On one occasion, petrol was poured on her front door and set alight. Reluctantly, she decided to end her involvement in the paper. I so much wanted to keep Eduard's work alive but in the end, which was more important – his newspaper or his son?' she asks, and for the first time she starts to tremble. She has since moved to Ekaterinburg, the city where Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra and all their children were shot. The Bolsheviks were so thorough they even shot their pet dogs.
Those controlling Russia's fifth largest city now are just as ruthless. Ekaterinburg is under the control of the Uralmash gang – every business in the city, from market stalls to large factories, still pays protection money to them. The gang emerged triumphant from a turf war around seven years ago and it was during this period that famous mafia cemetery monuments began to spring up around Russia. One man, killed in a shootout, is lovingly portrayed jangling the keys to his Mercedes from his stone hand, while in Moscow, a gangster's gold chains and rings are embedded into his tombstone, which is floodlit and guarded day and night. Having eliminated the opposition, the Uralmash gang started to take over businesses and then the city's administration, even contesting elections with their own political party, the Uralmash Social and Political Union.
This pattern can be found across Russia. One feature of the ideological void left by the fall of communism is that ordinary people are not just cowed by criminals, but to a significant degree actually approve of criminality as evidence of strength and manliness. There is also a widespread popular view that you get more trickle down' from criminals than from corrupt politicians. So Uralmash essentially own Ekaterinburg, including the hotel I stayed in. The Imperial nightclub, which occupies part of the building, reflects their tastes. The club's sign is a brand new Range Rover mounted high on a plinth outside the door. Once inside, the decor is heavy red velvet and gold ormolu, punctuated by large metal replicas of the Audi logo – four interlocking rings – hanging on wires from the ceiling.
On the day I visit, a BMW is being given away as a raffle prize. The £6 admission fee entitles customers to a raffle ticket and as I enter the club through the metal detector, other guests are checking in their machine pistols to the cloakroom. Later, the club and a casino upstairs begin to fill up but there are never many more than 100 people inside and door receipts can only be £1,000 at most. Against a top-of-the-range BMW? I ask the spectacular young lady on the casino reception how this works. She explains that the car is a reward'. Gradually I work out what this means. In the casino, people are throwing their money around ostentatiously, but in the tens of pounds rather than in thousands. Spending in the bar is fairly restrained too. And if you can look beyond the gorgeous young women who comprise most of the clientele,the men are young and stocky with short haircuts. They have hired muscle' written all over them. The Imperial is not where the leaders of the city hang out, it is a social facility for lower-level thugs. The ridiculous prizes are crumbs from their masters' table.
According to the Russian Union of Journalists, Ekaterinburg has become the most dangerous place for journalists outside Chechnya. One editor of a local news agency was seriously assaulted three times in a year. 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. Gazprom has since bought two independent national newspapers while Kommersant was acquired three months ago by Alisher Usmanov, chairman of Gazprom Invest Holdings. Retired teacher Vladimir Velmoshni disliked the rampant corruption he saw in his town, Sholkovi, so much, he started up a small weekly newspaper, Sholkovianka. He concentrated heavily on corruption and ran a series of photos showing the palatial new houses of local officials, with details of their small official salaries underneath. The message was very clear. He also obtained a stream of incriminating documents. Three years ago, as Vladimir got out of his car, he heard footsteps running up behind him. He was felled by a huge blow with a wooden club which fractured his skull. As he lay on the ground, he tried desperately to ward off the blows which two young men were raining down on him. There is no doubt they were trying to kill me,' he grins, but I am not so easy to kill and I have a loud voice.' His cries brought passers-by running to his aid and his assailants fled. After a week in intensive care he discharged himself, so he could get out the next edition of his paper. And his crusades continue – this week he is concentrating on judicial corruption. There is, however, one change. After nearly being killed, he decided he needed protection and allied himself with a local businessman who invested in his paper. Has that limited his independence? Well, there is one direction, one group where I am going easy. But is that a problem where there are so many legitimate targets?' Vladimir says.
I meet another brave journalist in Tagliatti, a city in south west Russia. Alexei Mironov is a pleasant, bespectacled young man who has perhaps one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. He is the third editor of the Tagliattskoi Obozrenya (Tagliatti Observer) – both his predecessors were assassinated. Tagliatti is the home of the massive Lada complex, which still churns out 750,000 cars a year. We may think of Lada as a joke but the business has a turnover of $8billion a year. It was a great prize in the looting of assets by criminals that passed for privatisation in Russia. The result was a small but real war in Tagliatti that left more than 300 shot dead in 1996 alone. That same year Valeri Ivanov and his friend Alexei Sidorov decided to launch a newspaper to campaign against the violence and corruption. The first issue featured photographs obtained by Valeri of the local mayor socialising with the gangster behind most of the killings. All 20,000 copies sold out in a morning. The then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, launched a blitz against organised crime at Tagliatti. Thousands of police ringed the massive factory complex and removed all the documents. They were taken to Samara, the regional police headquarters, where they became the basis for Operation Cyclone, Russia's largest-ever assault on organised crime. Then on February 10, 1999, the HQ burnt to the ground, killing 77 police and staff and destroying all the evidence. Despite eyewitness accounts that fierce fires had started simultaneously in three different locations, the official inquiry concluded the blaze was an accident, probably caused by a cigarette. Powered by Valeri's campaigns and Alexei's investigative skills, their newspaper went from strength to strength, its audience riveted by the gang wars and the top-level corruption that lay behind them. Valeri was elected to the city council and there seemed a real possibility he might run for mayor, replacing the corrupt incumbent. Then in August 2002 he was shot dead at close range.
Alexei took over the editorship. He was a good professional journalist and had no political ambitions. That did not save him. Less than a year later he too was killed, stabbed 18 times with a sharpened metal file from a Lada workshop. In Valeri's case, the police quickly made an arrest. A car worker named Evgenni Manninger confessed but it rapidly became plain that he had no connection with the case – police had tortured the loner into confessing. Valeri's family were so keen to have a real investigation they even helped Manninger with his defence. However, when Manninger was acquitted, the case was suspended. When Alexei was murdered, the matter threatened to become a national scandal. Deputy Interior Minister Boris Grizlov issued a statement denying any political motivation behind the murders and described the Sidorov case as domestic violence'. Grizlov has been one of Putin's closest allies for decades and is now Speaker of the Russian parliament.
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.