Johann Hari: We can't allow Russia's dissidents to be killed on Europe's streets

We must choose to protect them, or let them be picked off on our streets

Share
Related Topics

The critics of Vladimir Putin – Russia's Prime Minister and former KGB agent – have a strange habit of being found shot or stabbed or poisoned. This week, I met a man who is half-expecting an assassin's bullet – here, in London. He is not alone. Ahmed Zakayev – a big, broad man with a grey beard and grief-soaked eyes – says: "I remember holding a press conference near here with my dear friends Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya. Now they are murdered and I am the only one left. But I have no right to sit in a hole and shake. I have to speak."

Zakayev is a Chechen, and his people have been pounded by Putin and his predecessors for too long. The people of his small mountainous province in the Northern Caucusus – rich in natural resources – are one of the most abused populations on earth. In the 1940s, Joseph Stalin deported every single one of them to Siberia and elsewhere. A third died on the way there; a third died on the way back.

"My grandmother never recovered from this," Zakayev says. When the Soviet Empire finally fell in 1991, the people of Chechnya tried to carve out some autonomy from their vast neighbour – and they were then pummelled into submission by aerial bombardments and ground invasions that killed hundreds of thousands of people. "There were corpses everywhere. I see them [in my mind] all the time," Zakayev adds.

The current killing spree of Russian dissidents is, in part, an attempt to silence criticisms of these crimes. Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist – one of the greatest of our time – who travelled to Chechnya to expose the mass torture and slaughter by Russian troops there. She believed that Chechnya was a test-bed for tyranny that was spreading back across Russia itself, leading to "the re-establishment of the Soviet Union". As if to prove her point, first she was poisoned. She survived. Then she was shot dead in the lift shaft of her apartment block.

Last week, the trial for her killing ended in Moscow. The case conspicuously avoided asking who ordered her killing, or why. It focused on "the middlemen" – the alleged driver and look-out for the assassin. They were acquitted. Nobody will be punished now.

Alexander Litvinenko was a Russian agent sent to Chechnya in the 1990s. He believed he was "fighting terrorism" – but he was startled by what he found. For him, the turning point was when he arrested a 16-year-old "resistance fighter". He told the boy he should be at school. "I want to be," the boy said, "but my school was blown up."

Litvinenko began to speak out against the assault on Chechnya – and had to run for his life, to London, where he became a British citizen. His food was spiked with nuclear material in a restaurant in Central London, and he died in agony, of radiation poisoning. The trail of nuclear material ran quite literally through British Airways planes – back to Moscow.

"Alexander knew who killed him," Zakayev tells me, adding that he was with Litvinenko as he lay dying, "right to the end". But despite extensive documented claims, this suspect has not been charged and the Kremlin has refused Britain's extradition requests. "Indeed, he is a member of the Russian Parliament and celebrated by Putin," Zakayev says.

Europe allowed a Russian dissident to be murdered without consequences – so it is happening again. Umar Israilov was a 27-year-old bodyguard to Ramzan Kadyrov, the thug appointed by Putin to run Chechnya today, who describes the province as a "zoo" filled with "animals" and brags: "I will be killing as long as I live."

Israilov was horrified, so he fled to Austria, to speak out. He begged the Viennese police for protection, but they refused. On 13 Jaunary this year, he was chased through the streets of Vienna by a gang of hit men – and shot twice in the head. This is only going to get worse. Dissent in Russia was relatively low as the economy boomed, built on a swelling oil price. But now Russia's stock market has fallen by 75 percent since last summer, the biggest drop in the world. That's why the ex-KGB chairman of the Duma's Security Committee, Gennady Gudkov, says: "We are expecting mass unemployment and mass riots."

To prepare, Putin has restored the Soviet-era criminalisation of dissent. Now, if you "advise" a human rights organisation – merely by speaking to them – you are guilty of "high treason". More people are going to flee to Europe – and we are going to have to choose between protecting them or letting them be picked off on our streets.

Yet for Europe, human rights in Russia are a bitterly low priority. Our governments are partly responsible for this resurgence of dictatorship. After the fall of Soviet tyranny, it was Europe and the US that forced Russia's infant democracy to privatise everything overnight in a programme of "shock therapy". The social services were shut down overnight and everything flogged off. As a result, the country's assets were seized by piratical oligarchs, and – according to a major study by The Lancet – over a million ordinary Russians died of cold or hunger or extreme poverty. This chaos and mass death made the old anti-democratic propaganda seem true – and sent the population running back to the old, cold face of dictatorship.

Worse still, we in Europe are addicted to Russia's gas supplies. If we anger Putin, he can turn off the gas taps, as he has shown with his bullying of Ukraine. Our government has made the bleak calculation that a dissident being murdered in central London doesn't weigh much against keeping the lights on.

There are many urgent reasons to end our dependence on fossil fuels. One of the most compelling is that, until we do, we will not be able to keep a democratic space for Russian dissidents to speak the truth, even here, on our own soil.

Zakayev looks out of the window, across the London skyline. "I do not want to die. Alexander and Anna did not want to die. But for the hundreds of my friends who are gone, I have to keep speaking." We – the peoples of Europe – have to protect that right at least, and at last.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

 

Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Patrick Diamond
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments