At first glance the young man looked as though nothing could upset him. Ilya Politkovsky, wearing jeans and a sweater, walked resolutely into a café in downtown Moscow. But he looked around nervously, speaking in short, abrupt sentences as if he were afraid that he was running out of time. The minute the conversation turned to his mother he lit a cigarette, his fingers shaking.
It was Thursday morning of last week, and Moscow was just beginning to wake up. Politkovsky, who works for a large advertising agency, planned to go to his office later. He had arranged to meet his sister, grandmother and aunt at noon to drive to his mother's grave. His mother is Anna Politkovskaya, Russia's most famous reporter, and she would have turned 49 that very day. "We always celebrated her birthday with only the immediate family," Ilya said. "She didn't want people to make a big fuss about her."
In her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, the woman who was Russia's moral conscience accused President Vladimir Putin of "state-sponsored terrorism" and his intelligence services of "kidnapping" and committing torture and murder in Chechnya. Politkovskaya was murdered on Oct. 7, 2006. She was shot four times.
This petite woman came to be honored as an icon of investigative journalism in the West after her violent death. But at home in Russia, President Putin irreverently and cynically sought to appease the public by claiming that Politkovskaya's influence on political life in the country was "extremely insignificant," and that the consequences of the murder were in fact more serious for him than the "damage inflicted by her articles."
After her death, Politkovskaya was quickly turned into a pawn for political interests. The Kremlin has tried to implicate its archenemy, former oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who lives in exile in London. Putin's opponents, on the other hand, say the government was behind the murder.
'The Arrests Torpedoed Further Investigations'
However, international outrage over the bloody killing in Moscow -- as well as the fact that there have already been 20 unsolved murders of journalists in Russia -- has put Putin under pressure to at least present the public with a killer in the Politkovskaya case. The Kremlin announced last week that it was ready to do just that. But what appeared on Monday to be a breakthrough in one of Russia's most spectacular criminal cases quickly turned into a political embarrassment.
Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika appeared in the president's office on Monday morning to present the initial results of the investigation. At a press conference a short time later he proudly announced that 10 suspects had been arrested, mostly Chechens, but also three former police officers and an employee of the domestic intelligence agency, the FSB. The case, Chaika told reporters, was as good as solved.
Ilya Politkovsky watched Chaika's announcement on television. For 10 months both investigators and the Novaya Gazeta had preserved a strict policy of silence. "The fact that the prosecutor general has made the 10 arrests public torpedoes further investigations into this murder," he says agitatedly. Accomplices and anyone else behind the murder, says Politkovsky, have now been warned.
He would be proved right. Within a few hours it was clear that Chaika's announcement was -- deliberately or not -- greatly exaggerated, and that it had in fact damaged the Politkovskaya murder investigation. Over the course of the week, the overzealous prosecutor general was forced to release one murder suspect after another. Alexei Berkin, a bodyguard who had been arrested 12 days earlier, and Oleg Alimov, a police officer, were released on Tuesday evening. The prosecutor's office had failed to present a solid case against the two men, leaving it with eight remaining suspects.
Sergey Khadjikurbanov, a police major with the Interior Ministry's organized crime unit, presented an astonishing alibi: he claimed that he was in prison on the day of the Politkovskaya murder. He had delivered a package of cocaine to a Moscow businessman, a common practice in Russia that police officers use to extort money from wealthy victims. This brought the number of suspects down to seven.
Pavel Ryagusov, a lieutenant colonel with the FSB, appeared to have been only marginally involved in the Politkovskaya murder. Prosecutors were able to prove that he may have had ties with a group of criminals they claim were behind the murder. And then there were six suspects.
On Thursday, the Novaya Gazeta felt compelled to issue a statement on the Chaika report and, in doing so, publish part of its own investigation. Ilya Politkovsky was the co-author of the paper's cover story. The authors used three words to refute Chaika's claim that the Politkovskaya was practically solved: "Eto ne tak" -- "Not the case!"
Although the article praises the efforts of investigators, it reads like an indictment. According to Novaya Gazeta, the prosecutor general's actions revealed a deep crisis in the Russian system: the close intertwining of the government and the mafia.
It appears beyond dispute that the trail in the Politkovskaya murder leads, at least indirectly, to the Interior Ministry and the intelligence services. When comparing telephone numbers, the investigators discovered links between the arrested suspects and the men behind the bombing of a Moscow McDonald's restaurant in 2002.
Prosecutor General Chaika portrayed the criminal law enforcement officers as exceptions. "Every family has its black sheep," he explained. In truth, however, the case points to a chronic condition within the Russian justice system.
In March five Moscow police officers were arrested and charged with robberies and 15 murders. And a Moscow-based ring of gangsters, judges and high-ranking officers in the police department's organized crime division was cracked. The group had fraudulently obtained hundreds of apartments through extortion and manipulated court decisions.
Leaks Undermine Investigations
In his press conference, Chaika admitted that he did not have full confidence in his own officials and those of the Interior Ministry. Two weeks ago he sent two IL-76 transport aircraft operated by the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry from Moscow to St. Petersburg to arrest mafia boss Vladimir Barsukov, known as Kumarin, the notorious "Godfather of St. Petersburg." The aircraft were carrying 300 heavily armed police officers and even a few armored vehicles. "If we had acted differently, he would have been warned," Chaika said. "We have discovered leaks in the Prosecutor General's Office and city government, as well as the police and security agencies."
The same pattern was apparently behind the leaks of the names of the 10 suspects in the Politkovskaya case, because Chaika never named them. Yet the day after his press conference, the names, along with addresses and photos, appeared in a major tabloid newspaper and on the Internet. Investigators complain that the leaks have deprived them of the element of surprise in bringing suspects and others believed involved in the murder face to face.
"The Interior Ministry, FSB and Prosecutor General's Office held an open house last week," writes Novaya Gazeta. Even a photo of the head of the investigation team, Pyotr Garibyan, is now on the Internet, almost as if he too had become a target for hit men.
The amateurish course of action taken by Chaika stands in sharp contrast to the self-assurance with which he revealed who was allegedly behind the Politkovskaya murder. It seemed more than a coincidence that Chaika echoed President Putin's statement shortly after the murder: "Only people outside Russia could have been interested in Politkovskaya's death."
The implication was that not only Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch in London, but also Leonid Nevslin, a partner of former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were involved. Khodorkovsky is in a Siberian prison camp, while Nevslin lives in exile in Israel. "They want to destabilize the country and return to the system in which money and oligarchs decided everything," Chaika fumed. His statement fits nicely into the anti-Western mood of the parliamentary election campaign, which begins this week.
"The bullet came from abroad," was the conclusion of government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta. According to a survey in the paper Isvestiya, 57 percent of its readers agree. The Russian tycoon and former KGB foreign investigator Alexander Lebedev, who owns Novaya Gazeta together with former President Mikhail Gorbachev, sees things differently. He warns against demonizing other countries, and recommends instead a "radical reform of the law enforcement agencies" in his own country.
Ilya Politkovsky also takes little stock in conspiracy theories. His mother, he says, wrote more than 500 articles, and most of them could have been reason enough for someone to want revenge. "She was killed because of a very specific piece of research," he says. Politkovsky says he doesn't want to give up hope that "the truth will come to light one day after all."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan