The Problem with Russia

The Economist offers devastating insights into the state of modern Russia:

THE flamboyant Russian community in London has until recently been regarded by the city’s natives with wry amusement. The tycoons and tax refugees at its centre have boosted the price of high-end property, imported expensive soccer players along with their befurred wives and provided useful fodder for gossip columnists. Then Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned.

Never in his life was Litvinenko as important as he has become in death. He was not really a spy, as he has been described, but worked for domestic units of the FSB, one of the KGB‘s post-Soviet successors. He has been labelled a defector; but few people took the information he brought out of Russia when he fled to Britain seriously. He had always been a pawn in other people’s power struggles, and even as a pawn his utility was declining.

Litvinenko fell ill in London on November 1st. Just after his agonising death, under police guard, on November 23rd, the poison that killed him was identified as radioactive polonium. By the time he was buried in Highgate Cemetery last week in a specially sealed coffin, Londoners understood that the dissidents and playboys spewed out by post-Soviet Russia had imported other things too: intrigue, shady pasts and grudges pursued with reckless brutality. And it had become clear that the rest of the world could no longer complacently regard Russia’s violent internecine politics as a worry for Russians alone.

On November 1st Litvinenko met Mario Scaramella, an Italian muckraker who has investigated the KGB‘s activities in Italy, at a Piccadilly sushi bar. But it now looks as though the meeting that led to his death was with two or more visiting ex-KGB Russians at a posh hotel in Mayfair. A number of staff at the hotel bar have shown traces of radiation. So have rooms at several establishments in which the visiting Russians stayed, and the aeroplanes on which they flew between London and Russia, as well as part of the British embassy in Moscow, which the Russians attended to explain themselves.

The German police this week revealed that Dmitri Kovtun, one of the hotel attendees, had apparently spread radiation across various sites in Hamburg before meeting Litvinenko that day. Both he and his associate, Andrei Lugovoi, who saw Litvinenko on several occasions in the month before he fell ill (as well as on November 1st itself), have now been interviewed by the British detectives from Scotland Yard who flew to Moscow last week to pursue their murder inquiries. Or rather, they have been interviewed by Russian officials with the British policemen in attendance. German prosecutors also want to speak to Mr Kovtun. Both he and Mr Lugovoi protest their innocence.

The police may soon identify who administered the poison. Even so, the motive may prove inscrutable. It happened in London, but Litvinenko’s death was almost certainly a Russian crime, and in Russia the most dramatic and public outrages—the Beslan school siege in 2004, for example—tend to remain opaque, seized as opportunities for propaganda but never properly explained.

In the case of Beslan, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, immediately blamed the atrocity on outside forces bent on weakening his country. Yet elementary questions about what happened at the school remain unanswered. The Litvinenko affair involves a mix of dubious characters in several countries, some of whom may be either accomplices or escaped co-targets or the stooges in frame-ups. As well as a variety of explanations, the crime has set off an orgy of conspiracy theories, some of them opportunistic calumnies and intentional disinformation.

The immediate suspicion of many in London—including Litvinenko, according to a statement supposedly made on his deathbed—was that the Kremlin killed him, using either the FSB or another of Russia’s security agencies (such agencies, under a variety of names, have been tailing Russian dissidents in London since before the Bolshevik revolution). The Kremlin and others in Russia angrily attribute this assumption to anachronistic cold-war stereotypes. But the fact that people jumped to this conclusion says much about the image created by Mr Putin’s capricious seven-year presidency.

Nor is it an entirely outlandish view. Many in the FSB reviled Litvinenko: some are rumoured to have used his image as a target on their shooting ranges. Before and after leaving Russia in 2000, Litvinenko accused his erstwhile colleagues—and Mr Putin, the agency’s former boss—of horrific crimes. His key allegation (and not his alone) was that the FSB orchestrated the spate of mysterious bombings of Russian apartment blocks in 1999, which killed about 300 people and were officially blamed on Chechen terrorists. The blasts contributed to the eruption of a new Chechen war, which in turn helped to secure Mr Putin’s election as president in 2000.

For many of Mr Putin’s critics, the apartment bombings are the original sin of his presidency, an extreme encapsulation of a pattern that includes the ruthless accumulation of power and the supremacy of power over law. The charge is denied, of course, but it is undeniable that several journalists, parliamentarians and policemen who have investigated the bombings have either met unexplained deaths or gone to prison.

Some see Litvinenko’s death as part of a sequence of recent murders that included the contract killing in October of Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading journalist who exposed the continuing but now largely forgotten abuse of human rights in Chechnya. Mr Putin at first ignored her murder, then posthumously belittled her work. Others see a link to the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko during his campaign (against the Kremlin’s preferred candidate) for Ukraine’s presidency in 2004. That, too, remains unexplained—because, some in Kiev whisper, explaining it would be diplomatically awkward.

A sub-theory is that Litvinenko died not on Mr Putin’s direct order, but through a freelance vendetta pursued by current or former security agents. One of the stark contradictions of the Putin years has been that economic growth and spreading wealth have been accompanied by growing lawlessness and insatiable corruption. Across Russia the FSB is said to run assorted rackets, combining patriotism with graft in a way that can seem contradictory to outsiders.

Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union; for all their common personnel, the FSB is not the KGB. But under Mr Putin the siloviki (people of power) have been given freer reign than some Russians thought would ever be possible again.

The Kremlin’s main explanation for Mr Litvinenko’s demise is to blame both it and the Politkovskaya killing on hostile forces bent on discrediting Mr Putin. This version invokes the spectre not of the cold war but of the anarchic presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Mr Putin’s predecessor. In particular, it involves Boris Berezovsky, one of the so-called oligarchs who accumulated vast wealth in the frenetic privatisations of the 1990s. He helped bring Mr Putin to power but then fell out with him and fled to London. Britain’s refusal to extradite him (along with Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen separatist with whom Litvinenko fraternised) has infuriated the Russians, contributing to a nasty souring of Anglo-Russian relations.

Litvinenko claimed that, as an FSB officer, he had been ordered to kill Mr Berezovsky (who then helped him financially in Britain). Curiously enough, in one of the case’s many odd connections and coincidences, Mr Lugovoi also once worked for Mr Berezovsky. That he or the other bigwig Russians who have taken refuge in London would jeopardise their asylum for the sake of such risky Machiavellianism seems improbable. But the idea was given some credence by the strange incapacitation of Yegor Gaidar, a former Russian prime minister, who thinks he was himself poisoned in Ireland on the day that Litvinenko died. Now recovering, Mr Gaidar—an occasional but friendly critic of Mr Putin—believes his ailment was part of a campaign of anti-Kremlin subterfuge.

There are, naturally, other theories. Several involve the Yukos oil company, whose dismemberment by the state, beginning in 2003, was among the most brazen episodes of Kremlin lawlessness. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Yukos’s ex-boss, stayed in Russia (whereas Mr Berezovsky fled) and is now in a Siberian labour camp. Some Yukos executives still at liberty were, according to one rumour, tipped off by Litvinenko about plots laid against them. Then there is the theory that Litvinenko poisoned himself while hawking the polonium around London to potential buyers, or (so say some in Moscow) had been helping Chechen terrorists to build a “dirty bomb”. Or that he had fallen foul of Russian gangsters.

Another theory mooted in Russia is that the sudden spate of mysterious killings—which has claimed others besides Litvinenko and Politkovskaya—is part of the ongoing power struggle inside the Kremlin, in advance of Mr Putin’s putative departure from office in 2008. The aim, it is variously said, is to undermine one or other of his possible successors or somehow to force Mr Putin to stay on, which some who have profited during his presidency would sorely like him to do. Whoever is anointed by Mr Putin as his successor will surely “win” the election in 2008; the real competition, it is argued, is occurring now, between Kremlin factions. This idea sees Litvinenko’s murder as a symptom of a basic flaw in Mr Putin’s quasi-authoritarian system of government: the transfer of power, as mandated by the constitution, is tricky and perilous.

The polonium itself, with its rarity and trail of irradiated locations (see article) ought to be a telling clue. But it, too, has various possible implications. One is that the choice of a radioactive poison—as opposed to, say, an especially nasty mugging or road accident—was intentionally sensational. On this reading, it was designed to demonstrate the scope of the murderers and to send a hair-raising message to Litvinenko’s friends in London, and perhaps also to his perfidious British hosts. Or, according to yet another explanation, to damage Mr Putin’s reputation and Russian-Western relations perhaps beyond repair.

Alternatively, whoever chose it may have thought that the exotic radiation involved would have been untraceable, and would leave the police bamboozled, as might have happened had it been deployed in Russia. It seems possible that the actual poisoners did not realise the nature of their weapon. If so, this might account for the sloppy radioactive smears and contamination of third parties.

During a tsar-like televised phone-in with his people in October, Mr Putin made a little-noticed but revealing remark. He was asked, in a periphrastic way, about a tasteless joke he had made in relation to allegations of rape against Moshe Katsav, Israel’s president. It was wrong, Mr Putin said, for the issue of women’s rights to be used as a weapon in political squabbles. In other words, he assumed that the allegations had an ulterior motive—as they would have had in Russia. This points to the problem at the bottom of Russia’s increasingly bitter ties with the West: the Russians’ deep conviction that the rest of the world works as Russia does, and that all politics and diplomacy are as cynical and self-interested as Russia’s own.

The row over Mr Berezovsky is another example of this way of thinking. Some Russians simply refuse to believe that in Britain extradition cases are decided by the courts, rather than by the government. Likewise, some in the Kremlin were angry that Litvinenko’s deathbed accusations managed to penetrate his police guard to be broadcast: they apparently assumed that protection meant arrest.

Try to be nice to the snoopers

The Russians now have a chance to repair their reputation, reassure the world about the security of their nuclear installations (a nagging worry since the Soviet Union’s collapse) and prove that law in Russia is more than a political instrument. Russia’s qualms at hosting foreign detectives bent on questioning current and former spooks are understandable; any country would feel much the same. But the Russians could, short of compromising state security, offer total co-operation with the British inquiry. Condoleezza Rice, America’s secretary of state, urged them this week to do just that.

Both the British and the Russians are trying to appear conciliatory. Yet the co-operation has been tightly circumscribed from the start. As well as being permitted to question their interviewees only via Russian officers, the Scotland Yard detectives seem unlikely to be given access to any serving FSB men. The Russians, meanwhile, have begun their own investigation into Litvinenko’s death and what they say is Mr Kovtun’s own poisoning, and want to question people in London. That could in theory bolster the British efforts—or it could result in obfuscation, and be used to advance old grievances.

It would not be fair to conclude from any of this that the Kremlin is guilty as charged. But it all amounts to yet another sign that the hopes entertained in the West about Mr Putin when he first took office—that he actually meant what he then said about democracy, and that under his rule Russia could conceivably become a “normal” country—were misplaced. There have been many such signs, from barbarity in the north Caucasus to harassment of foreign oil firms and meddlesome foreign policy. But perhaps none has publicised the murk and cruelty of life in Russia so effectively as the mysterious death of an unimportant man.

2 responses to “The Problem with Russia

  1. Though few Americans pay attention to what’s going on in Russia since the Reagan-era breakup of the USSR, they should. President Vladimir Putin is chiseling away at the foundations of democracy in the former Soviet republic — limiting free speech among individuals and the news media silencing critics of his administration through the use of bully tactics. Should we be surprised by the actions of a former head of the infamous KGB? Not at all. Let the world know you support those people fighting to see Democracy and freedom rule in Russia with one of the items from my online shop:

  2. Though few Americans pay attention to what’s going on in Russia since the Reagan-era breakup of the USSR, they should. President Vladimir Putin is chiseling away at the foundations of democracy in the former Soviet republic — limiting free speech among individuals and the news media silencing critics of his administration through the use of bully tactics. Should we be surprised by the actions of a former head of the infamous KGB? Not at all. Let the world know you support those people fighting to see Democracy and freedom rule in Russia with one of the items from my online shop:

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