Pulling no punches, the Telegraph lets Russia have both barrels over its obstruction of the Litvinenko investigation with a massive article detailing the recent litany of ourages we have seen from Russia, ending with the radioactive toxification of London and various innocent bystanders:
THE ROTTEN HEART OF RUSSIA
Scotland Yard detectives have now had a week of official stonewalling. The British ambassador is being threatened by Right-wing thugs. Frustration and intimidation (and increasingly extortion) have become the norm for anyone doing business in Russia
The terse communiqué should have come as no great surprise to the nine Scotland Yard detectives who flew into Moscow’s Domodedovo airport last Monday. As their plane touched down, just after 5pm, a white Chrysler people-carrier was waiting to drive them to the offices of the Prosecutor General in Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. When they arrived, an hour later, Yuri Chaika, Russia’s chief prosecutor, had his written statement already prepared for them.
His instructions to the team, which was led by a detective chief superintendent and was in Russia to interview potential witnesses in the investigation into the murder of the former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, were succinct and to the point. The interviews, he told them, would be carried out chiefly by his officers, with the British detectives as witnesses; no suspects would be extradited to the UK, and all Russian citizens suspected of involvement in the poisoning of Litvinenko would be tried in Russia.
It was probably what the team had expected to hear. Since Tuesday, when they held their first interview with Dmitry Kovtun, the Russian businessman who met Mr Litvinenko in London on the day it is presumed he was poisoned, it has become increasingly clear that their investigations are being hampered and frustrated by the Russians. As one local journalist who has trailed the officers since their arrival in Moscow points out: “The officials and police officers here will give every appearance of helping. But they will be stonewalling. Each ‘no, that is not possible’ will be delivered with the utmost courtesy. But each ‘no’ will mean exactly that: ‘No, never, not in a million years.’ “
For the business community, well accustomed to the tactics of the Russians, all this will be wearyingly familiar. In Russia nothing happens at speed. And little happens at all unless someone’s palm has been well greased. It is a country where the police, politicians, even judges, are available to be bought. Since the fall of communism, the country may have discovered democracy, but it has yet to grasp the concept of the rule of law. As a result, there is a random, almost anarchic, quality to everyday existence. Laws are there to be imposed — or broken — on the whims of whoever happens to be in control of any given situation. Russia is rotten to its heart.
Even the British ambassador in Moscow is not exempt from the fear and intimidation that are a constant part of attempting to do business in the country. Yesterday, the Foreign Office was forced to make an official complaint to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the treatment of the ambassador, Tony Brenton. For four months he has been the target of intimidation by Nashi, a Right-wing youth movement linked to the Kremlin. The group has trailed and heckled the envoy, picketing the embassy and triggering a violent incident outside his residence in September. So serious has been the harassment that there are now fears for the ambassador’s safety.
The Scotland Yard detectives, however, will not have experienced such overt bullying. Their experience will have been of Russia’s most prevalent weapon: frustration. Kitted out in thick overcoats and padded anoraks despite Moscow’s unseasonably mild weather, they have had to endure lengthy delays, cooped up in their people-carrier outside Chaika’s office, while a stream of lesser officials have ferried messages back and forth, constantly changing earlier decisions, destinations and instructions.
The result has been that, so far, the only interviews the Scotland Yard officers have been able to carry out have been with Kovtun, who is now, himself, ill from suspected poisoning by polonium 210, the radioactive and highly toxic metal that caused Mr Litvinenko’s slow and agonising death in a London hospital on November 23.
Once they have dealt with the stonewalling, the Yard team will have to deal with another, more difficult problem of working in Russia: divining the truth from the multiplicity of lies and deceptions. “The most likely scenario is that the British detectives will be dragged up and down blind alleys, bewildered and infuriated by cooked-up protocol and officialdom and then, suddenly, the Russians will present them with a fall guy on whom they will have planted some sort of seemingly conclusive evidence,” says one British businessman who has specialised in finance and consultancy in Russia for 20 years. “That person will become the sacrificial lamb.
“Putin has no real understanding of democracy. He thinks judges can be told what to do, and he can’t understand why Tony Blair and the British government can’t muzzle their press. Neither does he comprehend capitalism: he still thinks commerce is all about bribes and the strong bullying the weak.”
Mr Putin is not alone in believing that. Many Russian businessmen think the same thing. When the law is there to be bought, it is the strongest, the richest, the best connected, who have the upper hand.
Tim Osborne, a British lawyer and the managing director of GML, an investment vehicle, knows about Russian business methods only too well. He is, he says, proof that falling out with the Kremlin can be a risky business. GML was the largest shareholder (with a £13 billion stake) in Yukos. The former Russian oil giant was forced into bankruptcy by the Kremlin’s demand for £20 billion in back taxes, and its chief executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, jailed.
Now Mr Osborne, 55, has been threatened with prosecution for allegedly illegally taking control of £5.3 billion worth of the company’s assets. No one, other than the Kremlin, takes the charges seriously. “It’s nothing short of bully-boy tactics,” he says. “Let’s face it, I’m not in Litvinenko’s class, I don’t expect to be poisoned. But am I careful? You bet I am. I have to be very, very careful where I travel. There are countries I won’t set foot in.
“It’s a disgrace that they can fight a lawyer just doing his job by bringing totally unfounded charges and attempting to wreck my career,” he says. “But then in Russia there is no rule of law. There is no independent judiciary. It is run by politicians. They rewrite history and make up the laws to fit the circumstances.”
Mr Osborne has good reason to be careful. He took over his role at GML after its original managing director, the multi-millionaire Stephen Curtis, was killed in an air accident. That, at least, was the ruling of the British coroner. But many believe Mr Curtis and his pilot Max Radford, who died when their helicopter crashed in 2004, were the victims of a Putin plot.
During the inquest it was revealed that Mr Curtis, a strong critic of Mr Putin, who is said to have headed a smear campaign against the president, had received a series of death threats and had told a relative a fortnight before his death: “If anything happens in the next two weeks, then it won’t be an accident.”
Mr Radford’s parents never accepted the accidental-death verdict and, since Mr Litvinenko’s murder, are believed to be pressing police to re-open investigations into the crash.
The creed of the Kremlin — to get anything done, one must either pay or intimidate — has become a way of life for all Russia. Bribery is back big time. Last month, one of Britain’s largest retail groups held a round of meetings with potential local suppliers in Russia. “The talks were like every other I’ve conducted,” said the executive concerned. “Everything was above board, thrashed out in normal business fashion. Then we had some drinks to finish our discussions on a convivial note. Suddenly, the Russian I was dealing with said: ‘My wife is very cold.’ It seemed incongruous. Frankly, I didn’t know what sort of response he was after. Then he said: ‘She needs a new fur coat.’ And he winked. I made my excuses and left. We never signed that particular deal.”
For others, their experiences of business Russian style have been more unsavoury. The chief executive of one large construction company, who travelled to St Petersburg in the hope of securing permission to build a large block of luxury flats, was asked for £20,000 up-front to ”assist in ensuring the necessary licences were issued”. When he took exception, he was told further meetings would be necessary and to remain in the country for a few days.
Eager to clinch his deal, he assumed that the matter would not be mentioned again. ”That night, there was a knock at my hotel room door,” he says. “When I opened it, this character was standing there, dressed in black and wearing dark glasses. He pushed me into the room, grabbed me by the throat and told me to pay up or there would be no flats. Then he disappeared. I left the next day and, no, I don’t intend to do business in Russia again.”
The effect of such tactics has been a blow to the country’s economy. Last month, the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation, the Paris-based think-tank, said in its economic survey of Russia that, while measuring corruption in the country may be difficult, it was clearly a major impediment to foreign investment. “There is,” it said, “a widespread consensus that [corruption] has been growing in recent years.” And the joint survey of the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has also recorded an increase in the number of “unofficial payments” for licences and state procurement contracts. “Bribery has become a regular feature of doing business in Russia,” it says.
It is also extremely dangerous. Murder, too, is a fact of Russian business life. Last month, a senior BP engineer was shot in a sauna and Zelimkhan Magomedov, the president of the National Oil Institute Fund, was gunned down in the street. Such has been the volume of contract killings among the business community that several multinationals have begun hiring security firms to protect their senior staff. General Electric, for example, recently provided its executives with 24-hour protection from MiG, a security firm whose clients include American Express, McDonald’s and Ernst & Young. For £160 a month, clients are given a number to dial at any time if they are in danger. The company says it will dispatch a squad armed with 9mm pistols within one minute. In a country where the police are just as likely to be the problem rather than the solution, such firms are invaluable, clients say.
This weekend, as the British detectives pass their time in the somewhat palatial surroundings of the British Embassy, sitting upon its red, heart-shaped sofas, gazing through the windows at the Moscow River, they will doubtless be reflecting on the frustrations, trials and tribulations of investigations Russian style. They may be there some time.