Unrobing the Emperors and other matters of concern. An author's blog - begun in January 2016 - revealing political deception in the UK - paving the way to The Road to Corbyn (2016, Matador) and Dying to Know - Running through a Pandemic (2022, Matador). Also updates on my work in progress: 'Mine to Die', an unusual work of local history with global ethical importance.
Monday 28 February 2022
MORE INSIGHTS INTO PUTIN - THANKS TO OPEN DEMOCRACY
I've learned from this Open Democracy newsletter - I hope it may be of value to you too.
At the end of 2004, Zhamalayl Yanayev checked in for a
flight at an airport outside Vladikavkaz, a city near Chechnya in
Waiting in the departure lounge to board a plane to
Moscow for medical treatment, Yanayev was suddenly summoned by security.
After that encounter, his family never saw him again. And, as far as
we know, neither did anyone else.
It is not clear why Russia’s security services
detained him, or why they murdered him, or why they never informed
his wife or relatives that he was dead, but the general nature of his
offence is pretty obvious: he was of fighting age, male and Chechen.
He was inconvenient.
Like Yanayev, Ukraine is now discovering how it feels
to become inconvenient to Russia’s
president, Vladimir Putin. As
tanks headed across the border with soldiers pushed onto the edge of
Kyiv, it was Yanayev’s story that came into my mind. It often does.
There are many reasons to hate what Putin has done to
Russia. He has given its riches to his friends, who are now
billionaires many times over; he has destroyed its political parties,
used its courts as weapons, imprisoned activists, forced honourable
patriots to flee their own country; he has used its money to support
vile political causes in other countries, and used its media to
spread lies and misinformation worldwide. But few things have ever
touched me as much as the fate of Yanayev. It is the sign of a true
tyranny when murder is so commonplace and happens so openly, as it
did on 28 December 2004,
when police officers just took him away from a crowded airport and
I have no idea what he had done to upset them. He
wasn’t famous or outspoken, perhaps it was a case of mistaken
identity. It felt like this could have happened to anyone.
We know about his murder thanks to a strange anomaly,
which is that Russia has – despite Putin having destroyed every other
vestige of its shaky 1990s democracy – remained subject to the
European Court of Human Rights. According to the court’s judgements,
Russia has violated Article Two of the European Convention – i.e. it
has committed murder – 349 times since
signing up in 1996. That is more than 13 murders a
It is incredibly hard to bring a case to the ECHR, and
triply so when the case is against a government that murders
witnesses. These 349 cases are just a tiny fraction of the murders
that have happened. We know about the murder of
Alexander Litvinenko in London with polonium-210 in
2006; of Sergei Magnitsky in
a Moscow detention centre in 2009; of Dawn Sturgess in
Salisbury in 2018 after she accidentally handled the
nerve agent intended to kill Sergei Skripal; and of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili,
a former Chechen rebel commander who had sought asylum in Germany
only to be shot and killed at a Berlin park in 2019. But inside
Russia, there have been thousands of other people eliminated because
they were inconvenient.
I used to spend a lot of time travelling to Chechnya,
writing about people like Yanayev, trying to interest people
elsewhere in their fate and that of all the Chechens, whose city was
destroyed, whose leaders were killed, and whose future was handed
over to the brutal thug that now rules over them. But it was an
uphill battle, perhaps most memorably summed up by the line “what do
you think of the situation in Chechnya?” being a punchline to a joke
in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Britain was far too busy making money from
the oligarchs for anyone to care about the concerns of over-earnest
bores like me.
I look at what’s happening in Kyiv now, and I am
desperately worried that our failure to heed the lessons from
Chechnya will mean Putin can unleash the same misery on Ukraine. My
friends in Ukraine are the people that Putin hates most: bright,
tolerant, sceptical, outspoken, passionate believers in democracy –
fierce campaigners against corruption. It was people like that who
got killed in Chechnya first of all, and it is people like that who have
been jailed, marginalised, exiled and harassed in the rest of Russia.
We are not powerless to stop this. While Russian
artillery pulverised Grozny in 1999 Tony Blair came out to St
Petersburg to meet Putin. After Litvinenko was murdered, David
Cameron flew out to Moscow to meet Putin and to remind him that
London was still open for business. Boris Johnson has insisted that
no country “could conceivably be doing more” to undermine Russia’s
kleptocracy, but that is
While Putin has created tyranny in Russia, we in
London have happily laundered his friends’ money, sold them houses,
heard their court cases and listed their
companies. There is nothing we can do for Zhamalayl
Yanayev now, but we can stop pretending not to know about him and all
the other people like him, and start recognising that the money we’ve
been moving has blood on it.
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