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Robert Amsterdam Headshot

After Obama Visit, Russia Resets to Default

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Given where things stood going into Barack Obama's first visit to Russia, it was moderately successful from a diplomatic perspective. The new U.S. president brought a few billion in business deals, agreed to some cuts in nuclear arms and made it clear he'd be willing to compromise on the contentious missile shield issue. He even met with the opposition and paid lip service to human rights, which is more than we see from many of the world's leaders.

Other than a few hiccups, Russia was on its best behavior throughout both the U.S.-Russia and following G8 Summits. If we squinted our eyes just enough, it was possible to believe that we were looking at a normal and responsible world superpower, not a country with a smaller population than Bangladesh and a smaller GDP than Brazil.

For all the talk of "reset button diplomacy," by the time Obama left the continent, Russia had rebooted to default, exhibiting some of the most regrettable conduct and tragic events it has become known for over the past decade.

First, in a practiced tough guy media stunt, Vladimir Putin hung out with a motorcycle gang and sent them to a port in Crimea, Ukraine under the Russian tricolor. President Dmitry Medvedev was also quick to make up for any lost street cred, resurrecting a threat to stick missiles in Kaliningrad, then flying to the brand new country of South Ossetia, formerly of Georgia, to warn Tbilisi not to provoke another invasion. Putin and Medvedev were eager to give the impression that Washington has given into the sphere of influence claim.

None of this compares to the outrage of what came next. On July 15, Natalia Estemirova, a 50-year-old single mother of one daughter, was shoved into a white van by strangers and kidnapped off the streets of Grozny, Chechnya. As her colleagues at the NGOs Memorial and Human Rights Watch made urgent calls to the media, demanding that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin guarantee her safety, Estemirova was found in Ingushetia, just a few hours later, murdered by two gunshots to the head.

What can be said about a kleptocratic country with no rule of law, where women are shot dead, young promising lawyers slain and the rest cowed into submission by fear? It is an unfortunate reality that news editors covering Russia have to keep such a long list ready in their top drawers: Paul Klebnikov, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, and now Natalia Estemirova. And this is just the top tier, followed by lesser known and often forgotten journalists like Ivan Safronov, Mikhail Beketov (barely alive, in coma), or Magomed Yevloyev -- the last being the unfortunate fellow who was "accidentally" shot in the head while in police custody. That's not even listing the other political murders like Alexander Litvinenko, central banker Andrei Kozlov, or the many enemies of Kadyrov, who are murdered as far away as Dubai and Vienna.

Call me biased, but this body count does not seem like a sign of strong and stable leadership.

Like many others, I personally knew Politkovskaya back when she was just Anna the reporter, who then introduced me to Markelov to work on a few projects together. Their posthumous fame would have surprised them, but the social destruction being wrought by Russia's ongoing culture of impunity would not.

No one can cast personal blame for a murder when the culprit is an entire system of grand corruption. For years now, self-enriching state officials have gorged themselves on public institutions while withering away democratic rights, reflected by a corruption ranking of 147. The government of Chechnya is perhaps one of the worst, as the decision by Putin to pass total control of the region to the 32-year-old Kadyrov is akin to placing the State of New York under the control of the Gambino crime family (no disrespect to the Gambinos).

When such a high number of government officials are in on the take, by definition the justice system does not work. From here, there is a thread connecting Estemirova's murder to other state conduct, such as attacks on history, rhetoric of aggression and expansion against neighbors, extortion and racket of the energy trade, show trials, and a stranglehold on the media. Journalists are not safe when a government attacks civil society organizations like Memorial, when they refuse to investigate shootings five years after the fact, and when it shows no inclination toward transparency. David Satter recently wrote in Forbes that there may even "be attempts by the authorities to use the killing of journalists for their own purposes, for example, by hinting that they were carried out by the regime's political enemies."

The reality is known well enough inside Russia. Human rights leader Lev Ponomarev, who has suffered his own fair share of violence (he was beaten right before Medvedev's first meeting with Obama) told the Financial Times, "When they kill three people in a row in a short space of time who worked on the same subject, then all questions disappear. (...) Politkovskaya, Markelov and now Estemirova, they were all investigating abuses by law enforcement and the killings of peaceful citizens in Chechnya - and all these people have been killed . . . It is absolutely clear."

We have to understand that we have passed the point when it was enough to talk about justice, investigations and accountability (President Medevedev, to his credit, has swiftly responded in this vein with appropriate comments, instead of waiting nine days, as happened after Markelov). No more excuses, no more outrage, but all we can do is accept and review actions. If the actions fall short, the grace period is over for the hundreds of Western corporations and financial institutions who have benefited so generously from propping up the Kleptocrats.

Obama seems like he has good intentions and fewer illusions about Russia, but let's face it: it is a high cost, low reward diplomatic problem. Given the current route being pursued in Washington, we are not likely to see any eye-opening changes following this latest murder. To Russia's delight, the Obama administration has found itself cornered into a guilty position, willing to apologize for anything and everything. Washington currently suffers from some very unreal assumptions based on groupthink - repeating like a mantra, we must respect Russia to work with Russia. The same goes for Europe. A high-ranking German official recently commented to me, "Whenever Russia behaves outrageously, everyone in Germany starts asking what we did to cause it."

When we subscribe to this victim narrative, measuring our words about Russia's human rights problem while journalists go down before the firing squads, who exactly do we think we are helping?

Anna Akhmatova may have nailed it back when she wrote, "She loves, loves blood, this Russian earth." But with the spilling of Estemirova's, it is high time we realize that it is on our hands too.