Friday, 12 November 2010

A brutal beating hints at deeper problems and a debate behind closed doors.

The savage beating of Oleg Kashin hit the headlines in Britain yesterday, as Russian journalists gathered to show solidarity for their colleague in Moscow.  Reporting news can be a dangerous business in Russia and Kashin is just the latest in a succession of cases of intimidation, violence and even murder.

The thirty year old was beaten into a coma - he suffered two broken legs, mangled fingers and serious damage to the skull.  Notably, reports of the incident suggest that none of his personal belongings were taken.  The attackers did a methodical, brutish and highly effective job of silencing the journalist.

The easy response to such incidents is to allege that the Kremlin organises punitive beatings (and worse) for dissenting investigative journalists.  That’s a gross simplification.  A complex blend of corruption, vested interests, youthful nationalism and ’legal nihilism’, can underlie such attacks.

Kashin, it appears, does not fit the stereotypical template of a campaigning anti-Kremlin reporter in any case.  He was no Anna Politkovskaya.

In a sympathetic opinion piece, Ria Novosti (the government news agency in Russia) notes that Kashin, who works for the Kommersant newspaper, has no history of human rights activism, nor is he even considered an ‘investigative’ or ’opposition’ journalist, in the normal sense.

Indeed his reporting was not only fairly straight down the middle stuff.  Sean’s Russian Blog describes its ‘healthy scepticism for all sides’ and its ‘nuance’.  None of which prevents a thorough journalist treading on toes or attracting the ire of one of Russia’s fiercely nationalist youth groups.

Sean points out that Kashin annoyed Nashi, the Putinite youth organisation which opposes foreign control in Russia and ‘Young Guard’ (Molodaya Gvardiya - the youth wing of the United Russia party) with his articles.  These groups are not without their connections to instances of violence and hooliganism.

The attack on Kashin, however, bore the hallmarks of a more professional form of thuggery.  And the reporter had worked on stories concerning a hugely controversial scheme to build a motorway connecting Moscow and St Petersburg, through the historic Khimki Forest.

The Khimki scheme has become a scalding hot potato in Russian politics.  Against strong opposition from environmentalists, the road got the go ahead, backed by business interests close to Prime Minister Putin.  President Medvedev intervened to suspend construction and the fall-out was a row with Yury Luzhkov, which cost the former mayor of Moscow his job.

Another journalist who investigated corruption around the Khmiki road, Mihkail Beketov, suffered brain damage in a similar attack, back in 2008.  Beketov, editor of the local paper Khmkinskaya Pravda, was dragged through the courts and accused of slander nevertheless.

Ria Novosti’s article reports that detectives in Moscow’s Criminal Police Department, who are charged with investigating the Kashin incident, were offended by journalists gathering outside their Petrovka headquarters to demand a successful investigation.  Their intent to provide just that, they felt, should go without saying.

The brutal truth is that the clear-up rate for attacks on journalists in Russia is terrible.  It’s understandable that people in the profession are angry, concerned and probably just a little scared.

There are difficulties in Russia which ensure that Kashin is unlikely to be the last reporter attacked in this fashion.  President Medvedev has demonstrated his awareness of the myriad problems which make such incidents probable.  A legal system which he describes as ’nihilistic’ is just one facet of a ‘work in progress‘ which is some distance from completion.

The Khmiki road scheme, over which Putin and Medvedev appear to be at odds, also hints at a deeper power play, which is taking place behind closed doors, as the 2012 Presidential election approaches.

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