A Saudi Disappearance With Russian Echoes
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering his country’s consulate in Istanbul and Turkish sources claimed he was killed there, I couldn’t help thinking of the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya almost exactly 12 years ago -- and the uncanny but incomplete resemblance between the world’s two biggest oil dictatorships.
The shooting of Politkovskaya in the elevator of her apartment building in October 2006 has haunted Russian President Vladimir Putin ever since; it was one of the turning points in his transition from useful situational ally of the West after the Sept. 11 attacks to the status of a rogue authoritarian ruler. Khashoggi’s Oct. 2 disappearance should, by rights, be a similar turning point for Crown Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia, known as MbS.
But there were notable differences, too. The Russian journalist’s tone was much harsher. Here is Politkovskaya in April 2001, after the Kremlin ordered the bulldozing of the private TV station NTV:
A Russia without NTV is a Russia with Putin. That is, with Russia’s hypocrite-in-chief. He’s constructing his policy on permissiveness toward the law-enforcement agencies, masked by smooth sentences about the primacy of the law. There’s no fight against crime -- there’s a fight against dissent.
And here’s Khashoggi on free speech in The Washington Post:
Shouldn’t we aspire to allow the marketplace of ideas to be open? I agree with MBS that the nation should return to its pre-1979 climate, when the government restricted hard-line Wahhabi traditions. Women today should have the same rights as men. And all citizens should have the right to speak their minds without fear of imprisonment. But replacing old tactics of intolerance with new ways of repression is not the answer.
Politkovskaya wasn’t shy about name-calling in Russian and from inside Russia; Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who wrote in English and was a U.S. resident, was careful not to insult the prince. Politkovskaya wrote diatribes; Khashoggi preferred polemics. Even so, the Saudi disappeared only a little more than a year after he began writing the columns for the Post, while Politkovskaya hammered Putin for almost five years before her contract killing.
No evidence has emerged that Putin ordered the murder of Politkovskaya; immediately after she was killed, her colleagues at the anti-Putin Novaya Gazeta blamed Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader Putin had hand-picked for the formerly separatist region of Chechnya and a bitter enemy of Politkovskaya’s. There also was speculation that the hit could been ordered by someone trying to frame Kadyrov. (The Chechen leader has denied any involvement). In the Khashoggi case, communication intercepts have reportedly linked MbS to plans to lure the journalist back from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia, and Turkish intelligence sources strongly indicate Saudi government involvement.
In both cases, the regimes accused of targeting the journalists denied any foul play on their part and promised thorough investigations (the Saudi investigative team arrived in Istanbul on Friday). But again, there are notable differences in the way the denials have been handled.
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he’d talked to the Saudi authorities “at the highest level.” Yet the White House has been unable to report anything about the Saudi end of these conversations. MbS hasn’t said anything publicly, either.
Things didn’t unfold in quite the same way in October 2006, when President George W. Bush asked Putin about Politkovskaya. “He said her death did the leadership more harm than her reporting did,” Tony Snow, the president’s spokesman said of the conversation between the leaders. Putin soon repeated these comments publicly, saying Politkovskaya’s killers had been plotting to tarnish Russia’s international reputation.
MbS’s relative reluctance to protest his innocence certainly gives the impression that he’s less concerned about protecting his international reputation than Putin was in 2006, when he still hoped to work constructively with Western leaders and institutions.
I wrote last year that, under MbS, Saudi Arabia is Putinizing rather than modernizing. Putin, too, started out as an economic liberalizer, but at the same time moved forcefully to get his country’s wealthy elite into line, seized control of the media and plowed billions into enormous vanity projects. MbS has taken similar actions. But he’s giving every impression that he has an even lower tolerance for opposition than Putin, and he’s not even all that concerned about damage control after what looks to the world like a brazen killing of a mild critic.
As a Russian journalist who has criticized Putin more harshly than Khashoggi criticized MbS, I don’t fear for my personal safety; I’ve been able to accomplish bureaucratic tasks at the Russian Embassy in Berlin. Khashoggi reportedly feared for his life, and rightly so.
Putin’s contempt for the rule of law, his suppression of the political opposition, his ruthlessness make him an undesirable partner for Western leaders. If values trump political expediency, why should MbS be treated with any more decorum?
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.