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Published: Sunday, 10/19/2003

Journalist's slaying may benefit liberals

Another journalist was slain in Russia last week.

In Russia this is nothing unusual. More than 200 journalists have been murdered in Russia since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, according to the Union of Russian Journalists. Hardly any of the cases were solved.

But this slaying stands out and may generate just enough negative publicity for Russia's “independent” general prosecutor's office and the Kremlin, which controls it, that they finally may do something about this macabre pattern.

Murdered was Alexei Sidorov, editor of the Togliatti Review, a Central Russia daily, who had sworn on the grave of his predecessor murdered 11/2 years ago to track down his killers, Russian television reported.

Mr. Sidorov died in his wife's arms from stab wounds inflicted by an unknown assailant suspect in a parking lot near his home. The killers fled without bothering to imitate a robbery, Izvestia, a Russian daily, reported.

Here's the rub: the newspaper published investigative pieces, in which it alleged ties between the city's organized crime groups and Russia's largest automaker located there.

Even Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov admitted on Russia's NTV television that police believe he was killed because of his work at the paper. Authorities usually write such incidents off as robberies gone bad. Even Russia's obtuse bureaucracy can't ignore the obvious on the eve of the parliamentary election.

As it stands now, authorities have little to gain from chasing down the killers of investigative journalists. The thread can lead uncomfortably close to home, literally.

No wonder Russian authorities - both under Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin - have been uniformly unsuccessful in investigating such murders.

Mr. Yeltsin used to over-manage the most highly profiled of such cases, demanding frequent accounts and replacing lead investigators. Such practice effectively sabotaged the investigations.

Mr. Putin, on the other hand, totally ignores such cases. It has the same effect. His ex-KGB minions don't have to be told what to do. Taking their cue from the official prosecution and closures of independent media outlets, they make sure that investigators of journalists' murders drag their feet and eventually do not get anywhere.

The practice of letting criminals “take care” of dissidents is nothing new in Russia. Soviet authorities kept political prisoners in the same cells as violent criminals, who were encouraged to harass them.

One can argue that the fate of dissidents has become even worse in the new Russia.

But Mr. Sidorov's untimely death may change that.

If Russia's liberals can use this case to taunt the Putin regime, they may kill more than two birds with one stone.

They may help save lives, protect Russia's shrinking independent media, and win votes in the parliamentary election.

If the liberals don't overplay their hand, they may even hurt Mr. Putin's re-election chances next year if they rub Mr. Putin's nose in this slaying. After all, it was he who was elected on the strength of his strongman image and promises to reduce crime.



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