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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Annals of Neo-Soviet Outrage: Yet Another Journalist's Voice Snuffed Out

The Moscow Times reports yet more evidence of "president" Vladimir Putin's craven cowardice. If he's really so popular, why is he so afraid of what might be written in a small-circulation magazine?

A journalist was refused entry to Russia on Sunday, just days after publishing a story that claimed the presidential administration had a secret multimillion-dollar fund that it used to finance parties during the State Duma elections. Natalya Morar [pictured left, on the right at the microphone, seated to the left of Maria Gaidar], a Moldovan citizen who writes for Moscow-based magazine The New Times, was refused entry at Domodedovo Airport after returning from a business trip to Israel, she said by telephone from the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. "They said, 'You are banned from entering the Russian Federation," said Morar, 23.

When she asked border guards why she was being barred, she was told that it was on orders from the Federal Security Service, she said. An FSB spokesman said his agency would not have any comment on the matter Sunday. The FSB oversees the work of the border guards. Morar said she believed that her recent report about the Kremlin slush fund prompted her expulsion. "I am certain -- I have no doubts that it has to do with my professional work," she said. "It is because of my last article."

The article, "The Black Till of the Kremlin," which cites numerous unidentified officials in political parties and the presidential administration, says the presidential administration has a huge cash fund from which it funded and controlled most of the parties that participated in the recent State Duma elections. It names Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Sobyanin and Vladislav Surkov, one of his deputies, as the people who control the money. A Kremlin spokesman could not be reached on his cell phone for comment Sunday.

Morar is one of more than two dozen journalists who have been refused entry to Russia since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, including former Moscow Times reporter Thomas de Waal, now the Caucasus editor at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, who was refused a visa in 2006. Morar, who graduated from Moscow State University last year, is a former spokeswoman for The Other Russia, an opposition coalition whose streets protests have been violently opposed by the authorities. Before that, she worked in Open Russia, a nongovernmental organization that was funded by now-jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Border guards initially told Morar that she should go back on the flight to Tel Aviv, even though she did not have a multiple entry visa for Israel, she said. Eventually, colleagues gave her money to buy a ticket to Chisinau. Moldovan citizens do not need a visa to visit Russia. The border guards told her that the ban could last three or five years, she said. Her sources for the article had warned her of the dangers of writing the article, she said, adding that they had asked for anonymity for their own safety. The article was one of a series of that Morar has written investigating the financial transactions of the Russian elite. A story in May claimed that Kremlin officials were using dozens of banks to launder money. Her story linked the transfer of the funds with the murder last year of Andrei Kozlov, a senior central banker.

Fellow journalists denounced the expulsion. "It is double standards and a classic political punishment when a person who lives in Moscow, works in a Moscow publication and is a professional journalist is expelled from Russia on the basis of some kind of unclear order from Lubyanka," said Igor Yakovenko, deputy head of the Russian Journalists Union, reported. FSB headquarters is located on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad. Morar said she would go to the Russian Embassy on Monday to seek an explanation. New Times deputy editor Yevgenia Albats told Ekho Moskvy radio that the liberal Russian-language magazine was considering legal action.

The Wall Street Journal has more:

A journalist who had written a string of articles about high-level corruption in Russia was barred from entering the country in another apparent sign of tightening Kremlin control.

Natalia Morar, a writer for Russia's New Times magazine, one of the last remaining opposition publications, said she was pulled aside at a Moscow airport as she tried to return to Russia early yesterday from a reporting trip in Israel.

Ms. Morar said her documents were in order, but she was told she wasn't allowed into the country because she posed a threat to national security. Ms. Morar, a citizen of the former Soviet republic of Moldova, has lived and worked in Russia for the past six years. After refusing her entry, Russian border police put her on a flight to Moldova. The Kremlin declined to comment.

Ms. Morar's travails come amid deepening problems for opposition journalists in Russia, even as the Kremlin has tried to portray parliamentary elections earlier this month as evidence of a budding democracy.

Pro-Kremlin parties won most of the seats, and afterward President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed he is stepping down at the end of his presidential term next year.

Speaking by telephone from Moldova, Ms. Morar said she believed her recent reportage of Russia's parliamentary elections was "the last straw" that caused authorities to bar her from the country. She worked previously as a press secretary for Other Russia, a coalition of political groups that opposed the Kremlin in parliamentary and presidential elections.

Ms. Morar had written extensively about alleged corruption in Russia's security services, some of which she said had been leaking incriminating information about their rivals in a power struggle between the groups. This fall, she wrote about a corruption investigation into kickback and extortion allegations against some top officials of the FSB federal security service, the successor agency to the KGB.

Ms. Morar also wrote several articles suggesting that Russian government officials were linked to last year's contract murder of a top official of Russia's central bank, Andrei Kozlov, who was trying to close channels for laundering money out of Russia. Within months of the murder, police arrested several suspects and called the case closed. Authorities said the murder was ordered by a banker who was put out of business when Mr. Kozlov revoked his bank's license.

Ms. Morar wrote that the arrests appeared to be a coverup and that Mr. Kozlov was at the time of his death trying to halt a money-laundering operation run for officials of the Russian government who were stashing ill-gotten gains in a bank in Vienna.

Two weeks before he was shot, Mr. Kozlov had also revoked the license of an obscure Russian "pocket bank" that had no visible customers. Ms. Morar, citing anonymous sources inside Russia's Interior Ministry, said $60 million had been transferred out of the bank just before its license was revoked.

Austrian authorities later said they had been cooperating with Mr. Kozlov on a money-laundering case in the weeks before his death and that they couldn't rule out official corruption as a reason for his murder. Austrian authorities passed information about the case to Russian officials but it appeared to be ignored, and Russian investigators never told the Austrians about the progress of the murder probe, an Austrian official with knowledge of the investigation said.

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