A VAN­ISH­ING WITH RUS­SIAN LINK ECHOES

Bangkok Post - - SUNDAY FORUM - Leonid Ber­shid­sky

When Saudi jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi dis­ap­peared af­ter en­ter­ing his coun­try’s con­sulate in Istanbul and Turk­ish sources claimed he was killed there, I couldn’t help think­ing of the mur­der of Rus­sian jour­nal­ist Anna Politkovskaya al­most ex­actly 12 years ago — and the un­canny but in­com­plete re­sem­blance be­tween the world’s two big­gest oil dic­ta­tor­ships.

The shoot­ing of Politkovskaya in the el­e­va­tor of her apart­ment build­ing in Oc­to­ber 2006 has haunted Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin ever since; it was one of the turn­ing points in his tran­si­tion from use­ful sit­u­a­tional ally of the West af­ter the Sept 11 at­tacks to the sta­tus of a rogue au­thor­i­tar­ian ruler. Khashoggi’s Oct 2 dis­ap­pear­ance should, by rights, be a sim­i­lar turn­ing point for Crown Prince Mo­hammed of Saudi Ara­bia, known as MbS.

Khashoggi and Politkovskaya had much in com­mon. Both took on their re­spec­tive rulers for in­tol­er­ance of dis­sent, and for cruel wars — Mr Putin in Chech­nya, and MbS in Ye­men. Both were ap­palled at cor­rup­tion in their home coun­tries.

But there were notable dif­fer­ences, too. The Rus­sian jour­nal­ist’s tone was much harsher. Here is Politkovskaya in April 2001, af­ter the Krem­lin or­dered the bull­doz­ing of the pri­vate TV sta­tion NTV: “A Rus­sia with­out NTV is a Rus­sia with Mr Putin. That is, with Rus­sia’s hyp­ocrite-in-chief. He’s con­struct­ing his pol­icy on per­mis­sive­ness to­ward the law-en­force­ment agen­cies, masked by smooth sen­tences about the pri­macy of the law. There’s no fight against crime — there’s a fight against dis­sent.”

And here’s Khashoggi on free speech in The Wash­ing­ton Post: “Shouldn’t we as­pire to al­low the mar­ket­place of ideas to be open? I agree with MbS that the na­tion should re­turn to its pre-1979 cli­mate, when the gov­ern­ment re­stricted hard-line Wah­habi tra­di­tions. Women today should have the same rights as men. And all cit­i­zens should have the right to speak their minds with­out fear of im­pris­on­ment. But re­plac­ing old tac­tics of in­tol­er­ance with new ways of re­pres­sion is not the an­swer.”

Politkovskaya wasn’t shy about name-call­ing in Rus­sian and from in­side Rus­sia; Khashoggi, a Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist who wrote in English and was a US res­i­dent, was care­ful not to in­sult the prince. Politkovskaya wrote di­a­tribes; Khashoggi pre­ferred polemics. Even so, the Saudi dis­ap­peared only a lit­tle more than a year af­ter he be­gan writ­ing the col­umns for the Post, while Politkovskaya ham­mered Mr Putin for al­most five years be­fore her con­tract killing.

No ev­i­dence has emerged that Mr Putin or­dered the mur­der of Politkovskaya; im­me­di­ately af­ter she was killed, her col­leagues at the anti-Putin No­vaya Gazeta blamed Ramzan Kady­rov, the leader Mr Putin had hand-picked for the for­merly sep­a­ratist re­gion of Chech­nya and a bit­ter en­emy of Politkovskaya’s. There also was spec­u­la­tion that the hit could been or­dered by some­one try­ing to frame Mr Kady­rov. (The Chechen leader has de­nied any in­volve­ment). In the Khashoggi case, com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­ter­cepts have re­port­edly linked MbS to plans to lure the jour­nal­ist back from the US to Saudi Ara­bia, and Turk­ish in­tel­li­gence sources strongly in­di­cate Saudi gov­ern­ment in­volve­ment.

In both cases, the regimes ac­cused of tar­get­ing the jour­nal­ists de­nied any foul play on their part and promised thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tions (the Saudi in­ves­tiga­tive team ar­rived in Istanbul on Fri­day). But again, there are notable dif­fer­ences in the way the de­nials have been han­dled.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump said that he’d talked to the Saudi au­thor­i­ties “at the high­est level”. Yet the White House has been un­able to re­port any­thing about the Saudi end of th­ese con­ver­sa­tions. MbS hasn’t said any­thing pub­licly, ei­ther.

Things didn’t un­fold i n quite the same way in Oc­to­ber 2006, when Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush asked Mr Putin about Politkovskaya.

“He said her death did the lead­er­ship more harm than her re­port­ing did,” Tony Snow, the pres­i­dent’s spokesman said of the con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the lead­ers.

Mr Putin soon re­peated th­ese com­ments pub­licly.

MbS’s rel­a­tive re­luc­tance to protest his in­no­cence cer­tainly gives the im­pres­sion that he’s less con­cerned about pro­tect­ing his in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion than Mr Putin was in 2006, when he still hoped to work con­struc­tively with Western lead­ers and in­sti­tu­tions.

Leonid Ber­shid­sky is a Bloomberg Opin­ion colum­nist cov­er­ing Euro­pean pol­i­tics and busi­ness.

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