A VANISHING WITH RUSSIAN LINK ECHOES
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.