The road to Moscow's main international airport passes through
Khimki, and all that most people ever see of it are rows of gray
Soviet-era apartment blocks and a giant new shopping mall featuring
Russia's first IKEA furniture shop.
But local civil society activists say what you don't see from the
main highway is the fear that has been stalking this grim industrial
"The situation in Khimki is not normal; this is a kind of
military dictatorship," says Yevgeniya Chirikova, a member of In
Defense of Khimki Forest, a local environmental group. "Journalists
and public figures are constantly being threatened. It's as if our
local authorities cannot accept any different way of thinking."
Over the past year there has been a series of violent attacks on
independent journalists here, culminating in the controversial death
in late March of newspaper designer Sergei Protazanov, who had been
preparing an issue of the oppositionist Grazhdanskoye Soglasiye
devoted to electoral fraud in Khimki's March 1 mayoral contest. That
election was won by the candidate of the pro-Kremlin United Russia
Mikhail Beketov, editor of another local paper and a stern critic
of district authorities, is still lying in a coma after being beaten
viciously by unknown assailants in November. Mr. Beketov's lawyer,
Stanislav Markelov, was gunned down in central Moscow in January,
with another journalist, Anastasia Baburova. She was a freelancer
with the crusading Moscow weekly, Novaya Gazeta.
Many experts warn that the crisis in Khimki is not so much an
anomaly as it is a lightning flash that illuminates a much wider
pattern of human rights abuses and deteriorating personal safety for
dissenters in many regions across Russia. They claim that the
Kremlin winks at local crackdowns, thus creating license for
regional officials who increasingly resort to illicit police actions
or private thugs to settle scores.
"The number of attacks on oppositionists, journalists, and
critical politicians is growing" across the country, says Yevgeny
Ikhlov, an expert with the Russian movement called For Human Rights,
a Moscow-based grass-roots monitoring group. "It isn't necessarily
always the authorities who are to blame, but they create an
atmosphere in which all kinds of [vigilante] groups - who think
their duty is to defend the regime - feel free to act."
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists lists 16
journalists murdered in Russia over the past decade for doing their
jobs. Every single case has gone unsolved. That may be just the tip
of the iceberg, says Tatiana Lokshina, Moscow head of the global
monitoring group Human Rights Watch.
"The situation in Russia has been deteriorating for several
years," she says. …