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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Crime scene

Russia | U.S.-Russia relations aren't taking into account Moscow's growing number of mysterious murders

Issue: "Obama," Nov. 15, 2008

Russia's leading human-rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko was due in Moscow for a preliminary hearing in a high-profile trial, but an onset of headaches, nausea, and swelling delayed her. Medical tests in the French city of Strasbourg confirmed her fears: mercury poisoning. Needless to say, Moskalenko missed the opening of the trial last month in a closed Moscow military court where she was to represent the family of Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent journalist and Kremlin critic who was shot and killed outside her Moscow apartment in 2006.

Politkovskaya was the third journalist killed from her newspaper and one of 13 journalists killed during Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's eight-year reign as president. And Moskalenko has won 27 cases against the Russian government in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The deaths followed by the mysterious ailment of Moskalenko added an element of crime thriller to the already soiled reputation of post-Soviet Russia. How thuggish can it go?

Fortunately for the Russian attorney and for Moscow, French investigators concluded that the source of her poisoning was mercury that leaked from a broken barometer placed in the car by its previous owner. But the serious treatment of the incident showed again how tense relations between Russia and the West are becoming. The deaths of noted journalists and outspoken critics-plus Russia's August incursion into two breakaway regions in Georgia-have provoked outrage but little substantive change in Washington-Moscow relations ahead of a new Obama administration. "For a variety of reasons, including financial interests and a desire not to quarrel with the Russians, Western countries have not raised what are really fundamental moral issues, including above all the poisoning or murder of Kremlin critics," Russian expert David Satter said.

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One issue clearly the subject of Western outrage is President Dmitry Medvedev's Nov. 5 announcement that Russia will base short-range missiles in a Baltic enclave between Poland and Lithuania. He said the deployment is meant to counter a planned U.S. missile shield to be based in the Czech Republic, but U.S. officials have always stated that the shield is meant to counter attacks from rogue nations like Iran and is not aimed at Russia.

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus said Russia's decision to deploy missiles was "beyond comprehension." But Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told the BBC, "We have been used to the fact that Russia growls every now and then. I would not give too much meaning to this declaration."

Satter, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former Moscow correspondent, suggests such declarations may be more about Russian officials internally promoting anti-Western propaganda. "They fear their own population and the best way to distract their population from the corruption in their country on the one hand and the lack of democracy on the other is to create this impression that Russia faces an outside hostile world-that there's an external threat. This is the same thing the Soviets did."

Moskalenko is grateful that she and her three children, who were also sickened by the mercury found in their car, are still alive. As she prepares for the next hearing in the Politkovskaya trial, scheduled for Nov. 17, she will undoubtedly be taking new precautions to make sure she is not next on the casualty list in a growing line of Kremlin critics.

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