Self-Interest, Power and Credibility in Russia

The New York Times that Russian authorities have arrested thirteen suspects in the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya.

Anna Politovskaya’s murder generated worldwide attention because her reporting about the war in Chechnya and other Russian security problems tended to embarrass the Putin administration. Given that other independent journalists, such as American Paul Klebnikov, and Putin critiques, most spectacularly Andrej Litvinenko, have been killed as well, the murders have cast suspicion on Vladimir Putin and his administration.

On the occasion of today’s arrest, Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika blames the Chechen crime boss for assassinating Politovskaya, Klebnikov, and a Russian central banker in order to hurt Putin’s reputation abroad. That is a motive that Putin himself has previously invoked to deflect the suspicion that has been cast on his administration.

Putin’s problem was that the murders appeared to be in his self-interest. The capture of a Chechnyan crime boss is also consistent with Putin’s self-interest and creates doubts whether his officers have caught the real killers.

There is a simple way for Putin to establish credibility. He only needs to show that he does not mind independent reporting.

If Putin allowed for independent news reporting on state controlled media then he would demonstrate that he has no motive in killing any journalist ever. Until then Putin and his administration will remain under suspicion.

A little bit of self-restraint can amplify the power of rulers a great deal because they gain in terms of credibility. That’s an important asset just as the suspicion of murder remains a burden.



  1. Yeah, I’m thinking more along the lines of “Russia continues the venerable Soviet tradition of the Schauprozess” and less “Baby steps towards the rule of law!”


  2. Hellmut,
    The sad question is whether Putin needs to establish his credibility. The Russians love him, and although the West does not trust him, he has all the toys (gas). Note the lack of meaningful EU support for Britain’s attempt to get tough.


  3. That’s probably true, RJ. On the other hand, Putin is term limited. He cannot safely retire with the cloud of murder over his head. Putin is only secure if murder is taboo to his successor.

    My research implies, by the way, that Putin will figure out a way to remain in power. Alternatively, he can leave Russia.

    However, even if Putin wants to remain in power for the moment, eventually he will find himself in a situation where personal security becomes paramount. For example, Putin might get to frail to protect himself or has to secure his children.

    The constraints of domestic politics generate incentives that rulers submit to the law. Of course, if a ruler values power more than security then the incentives sustaining the constitution cannot emerge.


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