Russians honor slain journalist

Times Staff Writer

Critics of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin gathered in a central Moscow square Sunday to honor a slain investigative journalist and call on citizens to unite in her name to fight for greater democracy.

About 2,000 protesters gathered on a cold, drizzly day to hear opposition politicians and human rights leaders praise the courage of Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in her apartment building exactly one year earlier.

Former Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov, now a top opposition leader, said Politkovskaya “ranks among Russia’s greatest spiritual leaders” alongside late Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov.

Kasyanov, who has made it clear that he intends to run for president next year, warned that with controls tightening over election procedures and the erosion of press freedom, Russians must fight to prevent their country from sliding back toward totalitarianism.

Politkovskaya was a fierce critic of Putin and his policies in war-torn Chechnya, where she believed the effort to suppress a separatist insurgency had led to massive human rights violations. The Russian president suggested last year that she had been killed by his opponents in order to make Russia and its leadership look bad -- a comment that enraged her admirers.


Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, announcing arrests in the case in August, said the journalist was slain by a Chechen-led contract killing gang working with former and current officers of the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service. Politkovskaya had often written about criminal interactions between gangsters and security officials.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a prominent human rights organization, told Sunday’s crowd: “They murdered her because she was fearless. She was fighting against lawlessness, against violence and against lies.”

Despite the alleged involvement of Russian security officials, Chaika supported Putin’s initial supposition and declared at his August news conference, without offering evidence, that Politkovskaya’s killing resulted from a plot initiated by exiled opponents of the Kremlin.

Among those who respected Politkovskaya, that statement has prompted deep skepticism of authorities’ willingness to conduct an unbiased investigation aimed at finding the real instigators of her death.

“We will never learn the truth about the murder as long as the current authorities are in power,” said Alexei Zemlyanikin, 20, a student at the rally. “But it seems that they are planning to cling firmly to power for years to come.”

Putin has been criticized by democracy advocates for establishing state control over nationwide television networks, ending the direct election of governors and setting balloting rules that make it difficult for opposition candidates to win seats in parliament.

Putin is required by the constitution to step down when his second term ends in the spring. Given his high popularity ratings and Kremlin dominance of television, it is widely expected that voters will endorse whomever he favors as his successor. Also, in comments this month, Putin indicated that he might retain political influence after leaving the presidency by instead serving as prime minister.

As has been the case at all major opposition protests this year, a large number of police officers were on duty Sunday, with about 1,000 officers in the immediate vicinity of the rally. Critics say such seemingly disproportionate shows of force reflect authorities’ fear of opposition.

There were no clashes.

Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition leader who spoke at the rally, sharply criticized Putin for his comments after Politkovskaya’s death. The president said at the time that “this murder has done more damage to Russia -- and the current authorities of Russia and Chechnya, which she has been covering lately in her work -- than Politkovskaya’s articles.”

“Those words were full of cynicism and cruelty,” Nemtsov said.

He also referred to a recent appearance by Putin at a congress of the United Russia party, which dominates parliament. He described the delegates as “servants” clapping for “their master.”

“We should understand that the Russia of servants has Putin,” Nemtsov said. “Free Russia, strong Russia, courageous Russia has Anna and truth.”

Yelena Ter-Akopyan, a pensioner in the crowd, said she came to the rally because she loved her country and loved Politkovskaya. “I want my country to be respected and trusted, not feared,” she said.

“Most important is not to be scared. Look how Putin is afraid of us,” she added, in a reference to the overwhelming police presence.

But Ter-Akopyan acknowledged that in fact she was scared.

“I am afraid, but fear should tell us that it is necessary to act,” she said. “I’m afraid for myself. I’m afraid for my relatives. And I’m afraid for my country.”