If China can detain the wife of a top politician on suspicion of murdering a British businessman, can there be hope that Russia will adjudicate the jailhouse death of Sergei Magnitsky? What about the elevator execution of journalist Anna Politkovskaya? Or the nuclear-isotope poisoning of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko?
Beijing has detained Gu Kailai, the wife of now-disgraced Communist Party official Bo Xilai, on suspicion of murdering Neil Heywood, a long-time British business associate whose body was found in a Chongqing hotel Nov. 15. At first, Chinese authorities blamed alcohol poisoning, but yesterday they said he was murdered.
The hard facts are clear, most experts agree -- this is a real murder, and authorities suspect that Gu and a servant played a role in it. But the rest is politics, said Chris Johnson, a former senior analyst on China for the CIA, and now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Johnson told me that Bo crossed an invisible line: He had seemed destined to be elevated to the all-powerful standing committee of the Communist Party Politburo. But he had created powerful enemies along the way, and ultimately self-destructed when a senior aide fled into a U.S. Consulate on Feb. 6, and divulged details of Bo's corrupt dealings, and the Heywood murder. Breaking the law and common decency are one thing when you are a senior Chinese official, but it appears that having it aired very publicly is quite another.
Yet even by those standards Russia falls short: Judging by the history of the last five or six years, if you commit a high-profile murder in Russia, you can be fairly assured of going on with your daily life unmolested.
There is no indication of a Bo copycat in Russia. Why? Newsweek's Owen Matthews puts it this way: Russia is one of the few countries where it's cool to be an outlaw.
Russian election clues? A couple of weeks ago, I ventured a bet that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will run and win re-election in next year's elections; his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will opt to keep his protégé in place, I wrote. While for a variety of reasons I still think that is the case, it's understandable why many think otherwise: Putin is throwing up a lot of conflicting signals. Take his decision to eradicate much-hated and bribe-laden car inspections for the remainder of the year, worth up to $300, writes Will Englund at the Washington Post. And what about Putin's announcement of a $285 billion program to rebuild Russia's ramshackle roads, another bane of the country (that's Moscow traffic pictured above)? Is Putin announcing such programs from a simple sense of good governance? According to Robert Coalson of RFE-RL, the way Russia's strongman is presiding over the affairs of the ruling United Russia party, he is sending "the strongest signals yet that he intends to return to the presidency in 2012."
This is entertaining -- and convincing -- to be sure. But that's the point. Putin doesn't need to convince anyone -- all of Russia and the rest of the world know that the job of president is his for the taking. So why the show? Because he wants the accolades, the hero-worship, the pleading crowds and so on, but while pushing matters to the brink, in the end he will, for the good of the nation of course, step aside (technically, that is) and maintain the status quo. The system works the way it is. Ask yourself this question: why in the last month (as the Moscow Times rounds up in an editorial) have the killers of Stanislav Markelov been imprisoned; has imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, while not released, been permitted a fair hearing on state-run NTV television while announcing a decision to appeal; and has the alleged triggerman of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya been captured and charged? Is it because Medvedev is acting against Putin's wishes?
This is where it's possible to lose one's way. What seems dissonant in the tandem in fact isn't. It happens because Putin wants the balance that Medvedev provides. Not incidentally, Medvedev is content with this state of affairs as well. One way to understand Medvedev is as simply another expression of Putin -- that is, even if Putin stepped completely out of the picture, Medvedev would not turn Russia into bastion of liberalness. Rather, when Medvedev's Russia undoes some of the injustices in the country, "what might appear to be the dismantling of Putin's legacy is not a dismantling at all," the Moscow Times editorial board writes. It said:
Khodorkovsky, even if given parole for good behavior, will not be acquitted. Investigators might have found Politkovskaya's killer, but we are unlikely to ever know who ordered the murder. Ultra-nationalism is still not being fought outside the courtroom. And thousands of other murky cases -- such as the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky or the beating of Kommersant reporter Oleg Kashin -- have not been properly investigated. Most important, the power vertical, along with its creator, is as strong as ever. Medvedev may stay in the Kremlin without tackling these issues. But if a handful of high-profile cases is all that he has to offer in terms of political reforms, his second term in office will differ little from Putin's policy of status quo. A second Medvedev term might then be best described as 'modernized stagnation.'
Viktor Drachev AFP/Getty Images
Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.