In Russia, a Murder With a Message

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Anna Politkovskaya, the celebrated 48-year-old Russian journalist whose coverage of the war in Chechnya won international acclaim (including being named as one of TIME's European heroes for 2003), was assassinated outside her apartment last Saturday. The fact that her execution-style killing coincides with an escalation of Moscow's campaign against neighboring Georgia will be taken by many in Russia as a chilling signal of the rise of an authoritarian nationalism that brooks no challenge.

Anna Politkovskaya was special. The crusading correspondent for the liberal Moscow-based biweekly Novaya Gazeta was admired by the liberal community and hated by corrupt military and political officials, although she had enjoyed grudging respect even among some hardliners on both sides of the Chechnya war. She had testified to the U.S. Congress and the European Union Human Rights Commission on atrocities committed in the North Caucasus.

The respect she had established in her work as a fiercely independent chronicler of the brutal conflict in the North Caucasus was evident during the 2002 hostage debacle when Chechen terrorists seized a Moscow theater and hundreds of people inside. Politkovskaya had been one of the very few people allowed by the Chechen group to enter the theater to negotiate on behalf of the hostages. During the Beslan School hostage crisis in 2004, Politkovskaya was badly poisoned (by state agents, she alleged), just as she was on the verge of brokering talks between senior Russian officials and Chechen separatist leaders to save the children. She barely survived that experience, but the death threats kept coming. Her enemies finally succeeded in silencing her with four bullets fired at point-blank range.

The assassination of a woman referred to by Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg as "one of the most important human rights defenders in Russia today" would have been taken as a chilling development whenever it had occurred. The fact that it coincided with Kremlin efforts to drum up hostility toward neighboring Georgia following the arrest of four Russian military officers on spying charges make it even more so. President Vladimir Putin's tenure has seen a systematic rolling back of many of the freedoms attained by Russians after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russians have watched their legislature and judiciary become increasingly subordinate to the Kremlin, which also claimed the power to run the regions by directly appointing governors. The corporate sector, too, has been brought to heel, intimidated by the Kremlin's power to use tax laws and other means to keep them in line.

Until now, murders and persecution of dark-skinned foreigners and Russian citizens of "wrong" ethnic origins had been the prerogative of the country's right-wing neo-Nazi groups. But as the state embarks on a vicious xenophobic campaign against Georgians, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (NDPI), a key nationalist body known among the initiated as the Movement Against Non-Slav Immigration, eagerly called upon its followers to support the state in exposing "the enemy" wherever they can be found — at marketplaces, in offices, at homes. While the state still pays lip service to weeding out violators of law and order, the NDPI and other neo-Nazis know only too well that ethnic cleansing will be greeted with a nod and a wink.

Those who ordered Politkovskaya's execution calculated well. The U.S. and Europe are shocked and indignant, but the furor will quiet down in a month or so, as it always does. And then Politkovskaya won't be around to testify against the Kremlin in the Western human rights forums. The killing was a clear message to Russian journalists and human rights activists: Those of you who choose to ignore it will be next.