March 6, 2007

A Suspicious Suicide In Moscow

A disturbing trend towards a shorter average life span has begun to afflict a certain small group of people. They have no connection through ethnicity or environment per se, but instead have one very specific point in common -- all of them have criticized the government of Vladimir Putin. The latest mysterious death dropped onto the street from his fifth-floor flat in Moscow:

A senior Russian journalist who embarrassed the country's military establishment with a series of exclusive stories has been found dead outside his flat in mysterious circumstances. The body of Ivan Safronov, 51-year-old defence correspondent for the newspaper Kommersant, was discovered on Friday. He apparently fell from a fifth-floor window.

Although prosecutors say they suspect that Safranov committed suicide, his colleagues yesterday insisted that he had no reason to kill himself. They said he was the latest in a long line of Russian journalists to die in unexplained circumstances. "Nobody believes he could have committed suicide. He had no reason to kill himself," his colleague Sergei Dupin told the Guardian last night. Safranov - a married father of two - had a happy family life and a successful career, he said.

Several newspapers pointed to Safranov's track record of breaking stories about Russia's nuclear programme. Last December he revealed that the experimental Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile, hailed by President Vladimir Putin as the basis for Russia's future nuclear might, did not work. It had failed to launch for the third consecutive time, he wrote. His exclusive infuriated military commanders, who continue to deny problems with the missile. They launched an internal investigation and threatened Safranov with legal action.

The authorities suspect suicide, but that may just reflect their view of those attempting to conduct journalism in Russia these days. In this particular incident, it seems odd to reach that conclusion so quickly. Safranov just returned from a business trip; why travel all the way home to kill himself? And why would Safranov toss oranges he had just bought into the stairwell first?

This follows on the heels of a shooting of another Putin critic here in the US. Paul Moyal, a former KGB associate of Putin, got shot four days after appearing on "Dateline NBC", where he told viewers that Kremlin critics had been warned that they would be silenced in "the most horrible way possible". Moyal survived the attack, in which he was shot in the groin; police are not convinced that it was an assassination attempt, but the coincidence seems strange.

As it does with Safranov. He did not always work as a reporter, but at one time held a high rank in the Soviet missile force. The coincidence of so many former officers in the old Soviet service -- Moyal, Litvinenko, and now Safranov -- all getting attacked so recently and so contemporaneously to their criticism seems more like a pattern of criminal behavior. One might as well be describing the MO of a serial killer, and that might be exactly what's happening.

The Russian journalism community is outraged by Safranov's murder, the latest of 13 such mysterious deaths in the last six years. They have organized tributes to his work, and pledge to continue his investigative efforts into the Putin government. They'd better make sure they've sealed their windows first.


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