Supporting peace and human rights in Russia

On 7 October 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered outside her flat in Moscow. This was not an isolated case -- several journalists have been killed in Russia in recent years -- and it was not a coincidence that Anna Politkovskaya was the target.

Russia is the third deadliest country in the world for journalists over the past 15 years, behind only the conflict-ridden countries of Iraq and Algeria. A report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that 42 journalists had been killed in Russia since 1992, many of them slain in contract-style executions and the vast majority unsolved by Russian authorities.

But Anna Politkovskaya was not only an oppositional journalist -- which would have been dangerous enought in Russia. The focus of Anna Politkovskaya's work was on the war in Chechnya, and human rights violations by Russian forces in Chechnya, or against Chechnians living in Russia. With this focus she had to touch on two central pillars of Putin's power in Russia: the Russian military and security forces, and Russia's war on terror in Chechnya.

Extremely insignificant?

President Putin responded to the murder of Anna Politkosvkaya only when pressed to do so by journalists during a visit to Germany. He then said: "However, the degree of her influence on the country's political development ... was insignificant." If that would be true, why then was she murdered?

Anna Politkovskaya has been threatened and attacked numerous times in retaliation for her work. In February 2001 security agents detained her in the Vedeno district in Chechnya, accusing her of entering Chechnya without accreditation. She was kept in a pit for three days without food or water, while a military officer threatened to shoot her. Seven months later, she received death threats from a military officer accused of crimes against civilians. She was forced to flee to Vienna after the officer sent an e-mail to Novaya Gazeta promising that he would seek revenge.

When she was killed, she was again working on a new story on human rights violations in Chechnya. And obviously Putin would like this to be "insignificant."

Not only journalists

And it's not only journalists. Only a few days after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, Russian authorities closed the Russian-Chechen Friendship society in Nizhny Novgorod -- again, because it was highlighting Russia's war on terror in Chechnya. Obviously, this is just another attempt to silence dissent, following the introduction of a new law on NGOs and civil society organisations. And the Guardian reported on 19 October that several well-known international NGOs have to cease their operations in Russia because they missed they deadline for registration under the new law. However, this was often due to bureaucratic delays. Until 18 October, only 91 out of up to 500 international NGOs had been approved by the Russian authorities -- the remainder had to suspend their activities. Again, some of the NGOs concerned are invovled in humanitarian aid in the North Caucasus -- in Ingushetia or elsewhere, often providing humanitarian aid to Chechen refugees.

A climate of violence

The killings of journalists and the crackdown on NGOs and civil society groups happen in the context of rising violence against minorities and political activists. In November 2005, two anarchists were attacked by fascists in St Petersburg, leaving one of them dead, the other one heavily injured. Especially Caucasians living in Russia face racist attacks and abuse regularly. And the present escalation of the conflict between Russia and Georgia -- with the deportation of hundreds of Georgian citizens from Russia -- adds even further to racist threads in violence within Russian society. Clearly, things are not going well in Russia...

Andreas Speck