The Reuters photograph from a Moscow courtroom during the sentencing this week of five men in the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya spoke volumes. The defendants were not somber or respectful. Instead they were laughing and smiling after two of them were sentenced to life in prison and the others received long terms for their roles in shooting Politkovskaya to death in the entrance to her Moscow apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006.
They are laughing, but Russia should not be. Although a court has delivered harsh sentences to the men who carried out the shooting, there has been no progress toward finding out who ordered the killing, as someone surely did. Politkovskaya was singularly courageous in her journalism and highly critical of President Vladimir Putin and the brutality of the war he prosecuted in Chechnya. Someone wanted her intrusive, resolute inquiries to stop. That person still is free and undetected.
Putin attempted to belittle Politkovskaya after her death, saying her reporting was “extremely insignificant for political life in Russia.” He was wrong about that; she was as fearless as any reporter of her generation. The sadly incomplete investigation into her murder exposes a profound gap in Putin’s years in power.
Outwardly and superficially, Russia possesses a system of courts, law enforcement agencies, lawmaking chambers of parliament, prosecutions and trials. But that is not enough. Under Putin, Russia has not achieved the simple standard of a rule-of-law state: that no one, absolutely no one, not even the president and his Kremlin pals, is above the law.
There was hope when Putin first took office in 2000 that the former KGB man would fill the vacuum left by outgoing President Boris Yeltsin and bring real change. He promised as much. But the hard truth is that Putin has led Russia backward. The most egregious cases of abuse — the prosecution of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the death in prison of whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky, the pursuit of the Bolotnaya demonstrators — came on Putin’s watch as president or prime minister. He presides over a state in which unchecked power is wielded arbitrarily and from the top. Those with protection go unmolested. Those who dare challenge Putin or question his policies — such as Politkovskaya — risk great personal harm.
In the last two decades, Russia has adopted new laws to replace the obsolete and crumbled foundations of the Soviet Union. But the missing element is enforcement. It has been painfully clear that judges in major cases have been instructed what to do and say, that prosecutions and laws can be readily deployed as political weapons and that corruption and coercion are thriving. This is Putin’s choice, a system as old as Russia itself, and hardly a path to a modern state and society.
Most of all, it is a tragedy for Russia’s people. After centuries of misrule, by czars and commissars, they deserve a chance at true democracy and rule of law. They deserve a country in which Politkovskaya’s killer will be found and brought to justice.