As the United States has developed under President Bush the much-desired friendlier relationship with Russia, we have ignored a disturbing development in Moscow that casts a heavy cloud over that relationship.

On July 9, Paul Klebnikov, the American-born editor of Forbes Magazine's Russian edition, was gunned down as he left his office in Moscow, making him the 15th journalist to be murdered in Russia since 2000, and showing once again that Vladimir Putin's Russia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to practice their trade.

In 2002, Valery Ivanov was shot and killed outside his home. Ivanov was the founding editor of the leading newspaper in Togliatti, a one-industry town that makes the AutoVAZ car. The Togliatti Observer had been running tough investigations into local crimes and corruption, and sometimes fingering local officials and police. Alexei Sidorov, Ivanov's successor at the Observer, vowed to continue the investigations, and kept his word. In October of 2003, he, too, was murdered -- stabbed with an ice pick.

This time, Russia's deputy prosecutor general, Vladimir Kolesnikov, came to town, and, according to a BBC report, authorities soon announced they had nabbed the killer -- a local factory worker. The man from Moscow then took pains to point out that the case was a common street killing and bore no relation to Sidorov's journalism. That conclusion was greeted with much skepticism, because other officials had given conflicting statements and because of allegations that police had beaten the factory worker, allegedly to wring a confession from him. The worker's friends said the police had pressed them to testify falsely that they had seen the accused making the murder weapon.

In most of these cases, there is good reason to suspect organized crime and/or corrupt local officials and oligarchs -- ruthless men, some of them former Soviet officials, who managed to grab huge fortunes for themselves in the breakup of the Soviet Union and who are frequently the targets of investigative reporting. Klebnikov had written extensively about the oligarchs.

But some think the federal government might have blood on its hands, too. 2003 also saw the murder of Yuri Shchekochikin, a crusading former member of the Russian Parliament who had suggested a possible involvement of Russian security forces in the Moscow apartment-building bombings of 1999. The government had blamed those bombings on the Chechens.

The killers in these cases seem to act with near impunity; few are ever caught and prosecuted. And these murders occur as Putin progressively squeezes what little freedom of the press Russians have been allowed by taking over virtually all TV outlets, firing outspoken broadcasters and, according to The Christian Science Monitor, shutting down one popular program as it began showing an interview with a Chechen separatist leader.

And there are more common, lesser harassments. Journalists critical of the government frequently receive threatening phone calls, and their movements are shadowed. The Glasnost Defense Foundation, a nongovernmental organization devoted to a free press and the work and welfare of journalists, reported that last year 96 journalists were assaulted, 24 media offices were attacked, 378 court cases were brought against the media and 24 cases resulted in the plug being pulled on 24 programs -- while they were on the air!

It is a truism in the democratic West that a minimum level of transparency is as essential to that form of government as oxygen is to biological life, and that a free press is necessary to provide it. Russia's last presidential election was a bad joke, with Putin, the former KGB agent, controlling the nation's television and shutting out opponents almost entirely. Imagine an election in this country in which the White House controlled all the networks (and individual stations), and the other party couldn't even buy spots.

All the good that Boris Yeltsin did when he faced down the forces that overthrew Mikhail Gorbachev might have been undone when he chose Putin to succeed him.

As hopeful as much of the world had been that a truly democratic evolution would occur, it would appear that Russia today is sliding back into the autocracy it has known, in one form or other, throughout its history. And if a free press is truly the oxygen of democracy, then all the signs show that Russian democracy is being suffocated in its crib.

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Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail(at)cronkitecolumn.com.

(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite

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