Russia's Justice Moves, but its Gas Might Not: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

Russian investigators finally appear to be making progress in determining just who is responsible for the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya, the prominent human rights reporter for the opposition paper Novaya Gazeta.

A Moscow court has prolonged the detention of Rustam Makhmudov, the Chechen whom investigators fingered as the journalist’s murderer, according to the newspaper Kommersant. “The judge, in explaining her decision, agreed with the investigation that the accused, were he freed, could go into hiding, pressure witnesses, or destroy evidence." Makhmudov himself responded, declaring, “I haven’t killed anyone. Let them go and find the real killer.”

Kommersant also reported that Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, the police lieutenant colonel arrested last month in connection with the crime, has been collaborating with the authorities: “At first the investigators called him the crime’s organizer. However, after the former agent struck a pre-trial deal to cooperate, the charge against him was lessened to co-participation in the murder.”

So, who arranged the killing? Possibly another Chechen, wrote Kommersant: The “influential entrepreneur Lom-Ali Gaiytukayev, already serving a fifteen-year sentence.” The one who ordered Politkovskaya’s assassination may be “an individual, whose identity the investigators have yet to determine, who has gone into hiding abroad.”

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With summer gone and the weather cooling, Europeans will take scant comfort in the re-ignition of a conflict they surely considered well behind them: the Russia-Ukraine dispute over natural gas, which has led in past years to supply disruptions from Russia via Ukraine. On Friday, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that Ukraine had decided to liquidate its state gas company, Naftogaz. The result: “contracts it signed have to be reexamined. . . . In effect,” to get a better bargain, Ukraine “has declared another gas war.”

Behind the brouhaha may well be the recent arrest of Ukraine’s negotiator, the charismatic former prime minister (and “gas queen”) Yulia Tymoshenko, who is now being tried for “abuse of office,” allegedly in relation to the deal she struck with Russia that resolved the last conflict, in 2009. “Ukraine's prosecutors are . . . questioning the agreement as they press charges against . . . Tymoshenko,” the Moscow Times reported.

The ultimate loser in the protracted clash: Ukraine’s reputation as a reliable Europe-oriented partner in the former Soviet sphere. To say nothing of the Europeans, who once again may end up shivering in their homes if Russia cuts off its neighbor’s gas.

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Gas of a different sort came close to wreaking havoc last Thursday across much of Chelyabinsk, a city in the Ural Mountains. “As a result of a leak of bromine at the railway station Chelyabinsk-Glavnyi, forty-two people have been hospitalized,” out of the hundred who turned to city health institutions for medical attention, reported

The Moscow Times provided additional detail, estimating the amount spilled from containers on a train at forty to fifty liters, and calling the obscure vapor “a substance used, according to Soviet urban legend, to suppress the sex drive of soldiers.”

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Russia’s most famous anti-graft blogger, Aleksey Navalny, has acquired, if only symbolically, a formidable competitor in Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Nezavismaya Gazeta informed readers that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation has created a web site for the “J. V. Stalin Anti-Corruption Committee.” It seems doubtful that the dictator’s virtual heirs will be packing millions off to the gulags anytime soon, though. This time, the communists have declared their aim to be “not destruction but creation. To fight corruption in order to preserve, not to break apart, the country.” Specifically, they want “every state bureaucrat to feel that information about his machinations and swindling can be made public throughout the country.”

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The Kremlin's chief occupant, Dmitri Medvedev, has yet to announce his candidacy in presidential elections that are only six months away. But that hasn’t prevented his supporters from deploying a tried-and-true Russian marketing technique: scantily clad women.

“Celebrating the first day of the school year, young women in tight white blouses, short plaid miniskirts and stiletto heels strutted around Pushkin Square and tested bystanders on their knowledge of Medvedev's life and policies,” the Moscow Times reported. Who were they? The Medvedev Girls. They offered non-too-subtle enticements, handing out “strawberries to those who answered correctly, adding to the event's erotic slant. ‘Strawberry’ is an informal blanket term in Russian for anything related to sex.”

The article highlighted the direct challenge Medvedev appears to be mounting to his potential rival in the polls, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, calling “The Medvedev Girls . . . an answer to Putin's Army, a group of women who stage pro-Putin events.”

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)

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-0- Sep/09/2011 12:54 GMT