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Analysis & Opinion
26.01.09 A Tale Of Two Lawyers
Comment by Shaun Walker

It has now been a week since Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova were shot dead on Prechistenka Street in central Moscow. As many commentators have noted, one of the scariest things about these killings was the brazenness with which they were carried out. The lawyer and the journalist were shot dead in broad daylight on a busy, upmarket street. Novaya Gazeta’s midweek edition last week said that the killers had no fear because they know that they won’t be brought to justice.

From everything that one reads about Markelov, he was a genuinely decent man who tried with his work to stand up for those who suffered injustices. His name crops up in a surprising number of places for someone who was still only in his mid-30s; he worked for people and organizations across Russia and in many different fields. He did his work because he was driven by a sense of justice, and it is of course a tragedy that the reward that people like Markelov get for their efforts is a bullet.

But amid all of this, there is also another depressing aspect to the murders, and that is the response from the Russian government to the killings.

When Anna Politkovskaya was killed, it led Vladimir Putin to make a fairly unpleasant statement when asked for his response. Instead of simply coming out with a banal statement that Russia had suffered a great loss and every effort would be made to find the killer, he said that Politkovskaya had had a minimal influence on Russian society, and that her death had brought the image of the country more harm than any of her articles ever had done. Which, if it was true, probably says more about the state of the Russian society than the quality of Politkovskaya’s journalism. But what was absent at that time was any feeling that those high up in the Russian government felt it was a bad thing that journalists who work to expose corruption and rights abuses should be murdered.

It’s clearly an irritation to Russia’s leaders that every time there is what appears to have been a political murder in Russia, there is an outcry in the Western press. But two years have passed, and Russia has a new president. He himself is a lawyer, and he has spoken out on numerous occasions about how important it is to change the political climate in Russia. Dmitry Medvedev has made it clear that he wants an overhaul of Russia’s legal system and he wants to change the way that ordinary Russians view the law. He wants to remove the atmosphere of “legal nihilism” that reigns in Russia and introduce respect for the law and for the courts.

Different commentators have taken different perspectives on the sincerity of Medvedev’s proclamations, and on the likelihood of him being able to do anything to carry them out. But whatever people thought of him, it’s clear that he is from a different social milieu and grew up in a different age to Putin.

So, what did Medvedev have to say about the murder of Markelov? What did he have to say as the president of a country where political murderers have got so brazen they can knock off their victims on a busy Moscow street in daylight? What did he have to say as the president who has promised to encourage a respect for the law to the family of a lawyer who was murdered for his work? What did he have to say as one lawyer in memory of another?

The answer, a week after the incident, is absolutely nothing. Not a stock expression of regret, no condolences for the family, and certainly not a heartfelt pledge to eradicate this kind of killing from modern Russia, and bring the killers to justice, whether they be in Chechnya or among the ranks of Russian nationalists.

Alexander Lebedev, the part-owner of Novaya Gazeta, said last week at a press conference that he thought it was shameful that there had been no statements from those in power, though he added that given what had been said about Politkovskaya, it was perhaps for the best.

But if Medvedev really wants a new kind of Russia, where “freedom is better than lack of freedom,” then this is the sort of episode that should make him sad and furious, as it should make all normal-thinking people sad and furious.

It’s not difficult for a president to make a statement, and especially in Russia, it’s not difficult for that statement to then be broadcast on all the television channels, to make it clear to the people that the president knows about the case and is troubled by it. It would have taken all of two minutes of his time.

By keeping silent, he makes it much harder to believe that he is really interested in tackling corruption and legal nihilism in Russia.
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