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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

What about Safronov? And, what about ALL THE OTHERS!

The bilingual zaxi blog has the following fascinating commentary on the demise of Kommersant reporter Ivan Safronov (pictured):

As The Economist reasonably points out: “Buying a bag of oranges is an odd thing to do before jumping out of the fifth-floor window of an apartment block.”

So is falling out of that particular stairwell window – leaving the oranges scattered on the ground – when your apartment is down on the third floor. So is the emergency number operator telling the kids who heard (!) the fall to call back later. And so is the police labeling Kommersant reporter Ivanov Safronov’s death a “forcible suicide.”

How odd? That particular phrase appears only eight times on Google – once Safronov is eliminated from the search.

Which is of course precisely what the Kommersant staff believes happened. Safronov was reportedly hounded by either the FSB or some other unnamed officials before his last story was due to have gone to press.

Safronov was remarkable among Russian journalists for being a hardnosed and apolitical reporter who covered stories pretty much the way they are in the West. He had a career in the military and retained many of those ties while writing about the armed forces’ debacles.

His revelation that the Bulava sea-based ballistic missile – hailed by President Vladimir Putin as Russia’s crafty response to the US missile defense shield – had failed in its third successive test ruffled a few army feathers. Putin personally witnessed the first launch fizzle while posing with binoculars in hand before state television cameras on an accompanying craft. The second attempt went largely unmentioned. The third one in October was simply hushed up until Kommersant hit the stands. It was particularly awkward because Russia has a pricey new submarine waiting for the missile called the Dmitry Donskoi – it now sits toothless in its dock.

Kommersant says Safronov’s ill-fated report was due to have been about illicit Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran. A story about past and present quasi-secret sales to those two Russian allies is not particularly enlightening. Shells from heat-seeking Russian missiles have wound up in Israeli tanks taking direct hits from the Hezbollah. The defense ministry is repeatedly forced do deny and then confirm elements of new arms shipments to Iran.

Safronov’s story had two somewhat novel aspects as reported by the Kommersant staff. The first was that Iran would get the mighty S-300V surface-to-air missile and Syria would finally secure the Iskander that it first tried to snatch back in 2002 before Israel made that impending sale public.

The S-300V is a supped up US Patriot that can strike down numerous incoming missiles and planes within a range of just over 100 miles. Its sale to Iran would pretty much make Russia into Tehran’s Lone Ranger in a potential military standoff with Washington. The Iskander on the other hand would give Syria a free hand to deliver a precise strike on any target in Israel – whereas now its missiles would be lucky to hit anything there at all.

The second slightly more interesting reported aspect to the story was that Russia was supposed to have been planning to cover up its tracks by peddling the weapons through Belarus – which pretty much has nothing to lose as it is.

Such a report would have been obviously picked up by the Western media. All the required parties would have refuted it within the week and Belarus would have accused Kommersant of slander (which it did even without the story being published).

So it is not entirely clear why the FSB would threaten Safronov about this publication when he had broken stories like the Bulava that cut much closer to Putin’s heart and which could not simply be dismissed as speculation. Kommersant has written about just such possible arms sales in the past.

zaxi by pure chance has uncovered a far more interesting and unreported piece of what Safronov was actually after. It is known that he went to an arms fair in the United Arab Emirates – at which obviously the Russians were out in full force – to confirm elements for his story. What had remained unknown was that Safronov also went there to track down one Viktor Bout.

The name Bout is most familiar to the people who compose Interpol lists and run US anti-terror squads. His father was believed to have been a heavy hitter within Yury Andropov’s KGB clan. Bout launched his own foreign intelligence career in the late 1980s by keeping an eye out for Jews fleeing to the West through Finland. He took the cover of a UN peacekeeper in Angola in the early 1990s and went into African business from there.

Bout unfurled his own air cargo companies and was soon shipping Russian arms to fuel massacres across the continent – from Zaire, Angola and Sierra Leone to Rwanda. He is thought to have supplied both Serbia and Iraq before those regimes fell. Bout was smuggling the Russian arms inside shipments of fish belonging to the companies Air Cess and the Flying Dolphin – which oddly were based not far from NATO headquarters in Belgium.

Bout is also believed to have been peddling “blood diamonds.” But his biggest claim to fame came in supplying what is thought to have been several hundred million dollars worth of arms to the Taliban and Al Qaeda between 1995 and 2001. His deliveries were reportedly marked “fish from Tanzania.” (Interestingly the 1998 US embassy bombing in Kenya was plotted by a man known as “Muhammad the Fisherman.”) Bout was forced by that stage to move at least a part of his operation under the auspices of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. But business soured: US authorities traced him with the help of Pakistan once the Afghan campaign began.

The link between Bout and the FSB was beyond anything even the Kremlin could deny to a fairly irate United States following September 11. Moscow gave up his two Ukrainian partners – Vadim Rabinovich and Leonid Minin – in 2002 while Bout lay low. The fact that both men were Ukrainian Jews was enough to deflect attention away from the FSB in the Russian press.

Which countries required Bout’s services over the past five years is murky. His mode of operation however remained unchanged. The Russian arms mostly went through Belarus. Besides his two Ukrainian merchants Bout also used the muddle of Transdniestr to help his cause.

It is unknown whether Safronov actually got a hold of Bout at the UAE arms fair. Yet Safronov clearly believed that Bout was again operating the Russian arms trade and already suspected the link to Belarus before his trip. And somewhere in the UAE – in the mix between the world’s most wanted arms dealer and the other more official Russian peddlers – his story of an imminent sale through Bout’s favorite conduit Belarus was confirmed.

So the potential embarrassment from Safronov’s report was not that Russia was scheming another naughty arms shipment to Syria and Iran. It was that the FSB was still providing cover – that favorite word of the Russian underworld “krysha” – for Bout.

And a story like this would indeed upset the FSB and Putin. A Russian arms shipment has that much more zing to it when conducted through a smuggler more wanted in Washington than few other people on earth.

All of which makes it vital to learn who exactly was hounding Safronov before his death – was it the FSB itself or these other unidentified figures who could simply have been Bout’s Moscow henchmen with less formal Kremlin ties.

For if it was the FSB plain and simple then it becomes a case of the Kremlin killing a reporter who was about to expose its continued reliance on Bout to merchandize its wares abroad.

zaxi is not sure if the case looks much better for the Kremlin if Bout's long hand pushed Safronov instead.

Here's the Independent's wonderful article detailing the shocking legacy of murders under the Putin regime:

Ivan Safronov did not die immediately, despite falling four floors from a window in his Moscow apartment block. Witnesses say he tried to get to his feet after hitting the ground, but then collapsed for the final time.

The police say the death of the well-respected journalist, who worked for the daily Kommersant newspaper, has all the hallmarks of suicide - though they are willing to consider the possibility that he was "driven" to kill himself. But his friends insist he was not the sort to take his own life. Why should he?

They say he was happily married with children, loved his work and was awash in job offers. On his way home he had bought a bag of tangerines, which lay scattered in the stairwell from which he jumped - or was pushed.

Far from being an individual tragedy, the death of Ivan Safronov will be seen by many as part of a grim trend. The Kommersant reporter is at least the 20th Russian journalist to die in suspicious circumstances since 2000, when Vladimir Putin assumed the Russian presidency. Shot, stabbed or poisoned, the journalists have two things in common: no one has been convicted, or in most cases even arrested, after their deaths. And all of them had angered powerful vested interests which appear to suffer little restraint in dealing with their enemies.

"In Russia," said Oleg Panfilov, president of the Moscow-based Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES), "whenever you are investigating something that could destroy someone else's business, it always generates a reaction - often it is murder."

A specialist in military matters, Ivan Safronov revealed embarrassing failings in the Russian defence programme. Shortly before his death, he was reported to be working on an exposé of Moscow's secret arms deals with Iran and Syria, something that, if true, would have caused further scandal. "He covered themes that could provoke a reaction," said Mr Panfilov.

Political opponents of the Kremlin can end up in jail, such as the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or in exile, such as the equally rich Boris Berezovsky, or simply vilified and ignored by a media industry whose independence is being squeezed. But if you offend the less scrupulous elements in Russian society, you could be risking your life. You may not be safe even if you flee abroad, as Britain discovered when the renegade security agent Alexander Litvinenko died from Polonium-210 poisoning in a London hospital.

Journalists, however, are particularly at risk. According to a new report from the International News Safety Institute, only Iraq has claimed more journalists' lives than Russia in the past decade. Though nobody is suggesting that Mr Putin had anything to do with the deaths, media organisations around the world have expressed concern at what they call "a climate of impunity". At the very least, he is accused of presiding over a country where it appears that the murder of journalists goes unpunished.

Few of the killings are as overtly political as the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down last October at the entrance to her apartment block. In that case it seemed clear that her death was sanctioned by someone powerful, who wanted her silenced. Most cases are much murkier, however; they can be seen as a brutal form of punishment for reporters who delve too deeply into Russia's sinister intersection of business, organised crime and the state's legal and security apparatus.

Working for a nationally known outlet such as Kommersant might be seen as some protection, though that did not save Ms Politkovskaya or two other journalists who worked for Novaya Gazeta, a fortnightly newspaper. She wrote that it received "visitors every day ... who have nowhere else to bring their troubles, because the Kremlin finds their stories off-message, so that the only place they can be aired is in our newspaper".

Pursuing corruption in the provinces, however, can be lonelier and even more dangerous. Two editors of a local newspaper in Togliatti, a city on the Volga east of Moscow, were murdered in succession. So was the director of the local TV station.

Death is not the only occupational hazard for reporters who show too much investigative zeal. Around 50 court cases are pursued against journalists every year in an attempt to muzzle them, while some 150 are seriously assaulted each year.

Mr Panfilov makes a direct link between such intimidation and the presidency. "The problem is with Putin himself," he said. "He showed his true colours with Politkovskaya's death." In the eyes of many, he appeared dismissive and slow to react. "Putin takes pleasure in launching verbal attacks on journalists," Mr Panfilov went on. "It is he who defines the atmosphere in which we work."

And after a journalist is killed, the truth is rarely if ever exposed. The investigation into how and why Ivan Safronov died, like those that have gone before, is likely to be quietly closed and an open verdict declared.

Ivan Safronov

Military affairs specialist for daily national newspaper 'Kommersant'. Was investigating a Kremlin arms deal with the Middle East. Found dead on 2 March after 'falling' from a window in his Moscow home in suspicious circumstances.

Anna Politkovskaya

Crusading investigative reporter specialising in Chechnya, attached to fortnightly national newspaper 'Novaya Gazeta'. Shot dead in a contract killing outside her apartment block in Moscow on 7 October 2006.

Vyacheslav Plotnikov

Reporter for a local TV channel in Voronezh. His body was found in a forest on 15 September 2006, dressed in someone else's clothes. No signs of a violent death, but his colleagues are convinced that he was murdered.

Yevgeny Gerasimenko

Investigative reporter on regional newspaper 'Saratovsky Rasklad' who had been looking into shady local business dealings. Found dead on 25 July 2006 in his flat, where he had been tortured and suffocated with a plastic bag.

Alexander Pitersky

Presenter on the St Petersburg radio station Baltika, who sometimes covered criminal investigations. His body was found in his flat, where he had been stabbed to death, on 30 August 2005.

Magomedzagid Varisov

A press commentator in his native Dagestan, where he also ran a think-tank, Varisov had criticised local politicians. Killed in a machine gun attack in Mahachkala, the capital of Dagestan, on 28 June 2005.

Pavel Makeev

Cameraman for Puls, a local TV station in southern Russia. Died on 21 May 2005 while covering illegal street racing in the town of Azov. His car was rammed by an unknown vehicle and his camera and tapes taken.

Paul Klebnikov

US citizen of Russian extraction. As editor of the Russian edition of 'Forbes' magazine, he put together the country's first rich list and specialised in corruption investigations. Shot dead in a contract killing in Moscow on 9 July 2004.

Aleksei Sidorov

The second editor of local newspaper 'The Togliatti Overview' to be murdered in as many years. He was stabbed in the chest with an ice pick or similar sharp object outside his apartment block on 9 October 2003.

Yuri Shchekochikhin

Investigative journalist, liberal MP and deputy editor of 'Novaya Gazeta'. Specialised in investigating corruption in the general prosecutor's office. Died on 3 July 2003 after an unexplained allergic reaction. His colleagues believe he was poisoned.

Dmitry Shvets

A senior executive at a local Murmansk TV station, TV-21 Northwestern Broadcasting. Had been highly critical of local officialdom. Shot dead outside the station's offices on 18 April 2003.

Valery Ivanov

Editor of 'The Togliatti Overview' and managing editor of the independent channel Lada-TV, specialising in crime and corruption in the local car industry. Shot dead in his car on 29 April 2002.

Natalya Skryl

Business reporter on 'Our Time', a local newspaper based in Rostov-on-Don, investigating controversial dealings in a local metals plant. Died on her way home after being beaten with a heavy object on 8 March 2002.

Eduard Markevich

Editor of 'Novy Reft', a local newspaper in the town of Reftinsky, Sverdlovsk region, who was critical of regional authorities. After a series of threatening phone calls, he was shot dead in the back on 19 September 2001.

Adam Tepsurgayev

TV cameraman for Reuters who filmed exclusive footage of the conflict in Chechnya. Shot dead in the village of Alkhan-Kala on 23 November 2000 by masked gunmen who burst into his home.

Sergey Ivanov

Director of the Lada-TV station in Togliatti. Showed an interest in the area's notoriously corrupt car manufacturing business. Shot five times outside his apartment building on 3 October 2000.

Iskandar Khatloni

Journalist investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya for the Tajik- language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Killed by an axe-wielding attacker in Moscow on 21 September 2000.

Sergey Novikov

Senior executive at the Vesna radio station in Smolensk. Claimed to be able to prove corruption among high-ranking local officials. Shot dead on 26 July 2000, in the lobby of his apartment building.

Igor Domnikov

Investigative reporter on 'Novaya Gazeta'. Died on 16 July 2000 after being attacked with a hammer in the lobby of his Moscow apartment block. His newspaper believes his murder was a case of mistaken identity.

Artyom Borovik

Senior executive at investigative magazine 'Completely Secret' that exposed the misdeeds of the rich and powerful. Died on 3 March 2000 in a plane crash that the authorities believe may not have been accidental.


Anonymous said...

The second article is from the Independent, not the Telegraph.

La Russophobe said...

Thanks for the correction, Patrick!