AMERICANS anxious about what can happen when prosecutors are subject to political manipulation need only consider the announcement Monday by Russia's chief prosecutor that 10 suspects have been arrested for the murder last October of the independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of Kremlin abuses in Chechnya.
After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, chief prosecutor Yuri Chaika told the press the murder was masterminded by a Chechen crime boss. The detainees included police officers and a lieutenant colonel of the FSB, the successor to the KGB.
Politkovskaya's colleagues at the independent paper Novaya Gazeta, who had been pursuing their own investigation of the contract killing, said the arrests were credible. But they intimated that the prosecutor's allegations about the motive and the ultimate responsibility for the murder might lack a factual basis.
They were being circumspect. The prosecutor's conspiracy theory was a transparently political piece of disinformation.
"As for the motives, the investigation results enable us to conclude that only someone outside the territory of the Russian Federation could be interested in killing Politkovskaya," Chaika said. "The murder plays into the hands of the people and structures aiming to destabilize the situation in Russia, change the regime, have Russia plagued with crises, plunge it back into the former system where everything was decided by cash and oligarchs, and disgrace Russian leaders."
When reporters asked if the prosecutor was alluding to Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire who regularly castigates Putin from exile in London, Chaika smiled and refused to respond. He didn't have to. His imputing of guilt to Berezovsky is consistent with the central propaganda line of Putin's Kremlin.
In that construct, Russia is under threat from Berezovsky and others who plundered the motherland's assets during the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin ruled the country. Because of that threat, the line continues, the Kremlin is justified in controlling most of the media; appointing regional governors; taking ownership of energy conglomerates; cracking down on non-governmental organizations from abroad; and empowering the secret services to enforce the authoritarian writ of the Kremlin. In the run-up to parliamentary elections in December and presidential elections scheduled for next March, the political incentive to propagate this doctrine is more acute than ever.
Hence a theory of the Politkovskaya case that pretends a Chechen crime lord had her killed, at the behest of an expatriate oligarch, to destabilize Putin's strong state. This version serves the interests of that state better than an independent legal process. After all, that may show she was killed to stop her reporting on the Kremlin's human rights abuses in Chechnya, and the links between criminal gangs and the security services.