Tuesday, July 13, 2004

A Former Putin Apologist Recants

I'll resist the urge to gloat at this New York Times editorial piece, if only out of respect for the man whose assassination made this change of heart possible. There's something about populist rhetoric about "going after corrupt oligarchs" that seems to make otherwise decent people lose their critical faculties, and those who've attempted to defend Putin's brazenly political crackdown on Khodorkovsky should wake up and face reality: the man is a crook and a thug, and his misdeeds make even the worst sins of America's current administration look like schoolyard pranks.

PARIS — On Friday night, I got a call from Moscow: my friend Paul Klebnikov, the editor in chief of Forbes Russia, a Russian version of the American business magazine, had been fatally shot as he left work. Paul's wife, Musa, was in Italy with their three children and had just spoken to him on the phone before he was shot. She was heartbreakingly brave the next day. Please gather articles about her husband, she asked, for his boys.

Then the anger rose. I am among those former Moscow correspondents, and those people of Russian descent, who have tried to stay optimistic about today's Russia and President Vladimir Putin, even in the face of all the distressing reports about Chechnya, the Yukos oil company, the media clampdown and the swelling powers of the Kremlin. You have to remember where they were a scant 15 years ago, I would argue: Mr. Putin has to restore control over the government and economy, and the oligarchs have to be reined in.

It will be far harder to argue this, now that someone has pumped four bullets into a journalist who earnestly thought that he could help Russia make it by writing the truth about its dark underside. It's tough to continue pretending that Russia is just in transition, struggling to emerge from Communism's rubble. Twenty journalists have now been assassinated in Russia for their work; 14 since Mr. Putin became president. Not one of the murders has been solved.

Three hours before Paul, who was 41, was gunned down, the last decent political program in Russia had its final broadcast. Savik Shuster's weekly program, "Svoboda Slova" — "Freedom of Speech" — was yanked off NTV, the station that Mr. Putin has been forcibly bringing under state control, by the newly installed general director. The "we're reviewing the programming" stuff rings hollow. Mr. Shuster had consistently high ratings, and they went off the charts when he held political debates during the election campaign for Parliament. The last show was about Russia's banking crisis. The week before that, a program about corporate responsibility was NTV's top-rated show.
Russians thought they needed a "strong leader" to clean up corruption. Well, they got their strong leader, but the corruption remains with them anyway, and now they won't even be free to publicly grumble about it.