Asylum decision suggests that US patience with Putin is wearing thin

Simon Tisdall
Wednesday February 2, 2005
The Guardian

When the US granted political asylum to Alyona Morozov last month, it gave no explanation for its decision. But the reason is not hard to discern.

Ms Morozov accused Russia's secret services of involvement in a series of apartment block bombings in Moscow and elsewhere in September 1999 which killed 246 people. Making such an allegation is potentially harmful to health.

Chechen separatists were officially blamed for the attacks. They led to the launch by Vladimir Putin, then Russia's prime minister, of the second Chechen war. Mr Putin's tough response impressed voters. He won the presidency the following March.

Ms Morozov, aged 28, whose mother was killed in their Moscow apartment, demanded an international investigation.
She suspects that the FSB, successor to the KGB, masterminded the bombings to boost support for Mr Putin, himself a former KGB agent.

Mr Putin has denied any official involvement. "It is immoral even to consider such a possibility," he said. But Ms Morozov is not alone in her suspicions.

The independent television station NTV reported on the eve of the March 2000 election that police had detected FSB agents allegedly planting another bomb in apartments in Ryazan two weeks after the attacks.

The FSB claimed its agents were conducting a security exercise. In June 2000, NTV's owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, was arrested. The state took control of NTV in 2001 and he was forced into exile.

In 2002, a parliamentary commission was created to investigate the bombings. A year later, two of its four members were dead.

Yuri Shchekochikhin, an MP and deputy editor of the investigative journal Novaya Gazeta died of a mysterious allergy.
His symptoms were similar to those of the Ukrainian leader, Viktor Yushchenko, who was poisoned last year.
Another commission member, Sergei Yushenkov, was shot down outside his home. His murder has never been solved.
Mikhail Trepashkin, a retired FSB agent turned private investigator who worked for the commission and was also Ms Morozov's attorney, ran into trouble in October 2003.

A week before he was to publish his findings, Mr Trepashkin was accused of espionage.
He was arrested, allegedly tortured, jailed for four years last May, and faced further charges in December.
Mr Trepashkin had reportedly identified a photo-fit picture of a bombing suspect as that of a former FSB agent, Vladimir Romanovich. But Romanovich, it transpired, was also dead, killed in a car crash a few months after the 1999 attacks.

Two Chechens received life sentences last year in connection with the bombings. But despite the scale of the outrages, no one else has been charged. And western governments have not challenged the official account for fear of upsetting Mr Putin.

The US decision to grant Ms Morozov's asylum application may be a tacit signal that this is changing.
Alarmed by Mr Putin's increasingly authoritarian rule and his meddling in Ukraine, the US is reviewing bilateral relations ahead of a Bush-Putin summit in Slovakia this month.

George Bush is being urged to take a second, harder look at the man he called a soul-mate and nicknamed Pootie-Poot when they first met in 2001. Russia's G8 presidency next year could be a casualty of this reappraisal.

Russians are also having their doubts. A recent poll found that only one in four trusted the president. A Russian civil liberties group has condemned Mr Trepashkin's treatment.

Human Rights Watch said recently that while Mr Putin "continues to present himself as a believer in democracy and human rights, by his re-election in 2004 both the political opposition and independent television had been obliterated".

Yelena Bonner, widow of the celebrated communist-era dissident Andrei Sakharov, has spoken up for Ms Morozov and other government opponents who remain in Russia.

"Mr Trepashkin and his fellow political prisoners ... are in the same situation as the dissidents from Soviet days," Ms Bonner wrote recently. "Just as Mr Putin carries on the traditions of his KGB predecessors, they stand up bravely to repression."