Socialist Worker

Alexander Litvinenko and Russia’s killing game

The death from radiation poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko has cast light on the Russian power struggle, writes Boris Kagarlitsky

Issue No. 2030

 (Illustration: Tim Sanders)

(Illustration: Tim Sanders)


After the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October, I predicted that there would be a follow up to this story. Unfortunately, I was right.

Alexander Litvinenko’s death has become headline news in Britain rather than in Russia. This is quite logical – the British people won’t just stand and watch a political exile living in England being dispatched.

Scotland Yard confirmed that Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who was granted British citizenship only a month ago, was poisoned. On Friday 24 November he died.

Litvinenko’s employer, or at least sponsor in London, is the opposition oligarch Boris Berezovsky. He hastened to name the main suspect – Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The assault on Litvinenko seems to be connected to the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, which makes the plot even more twisted.

Investigators believe that the former KGB agent was poisoned in a Japanese restaurant where he met an Italian journalist who allegedly possessed data concerning the Politkovskaya case.

After being interrogated by British detectives, the journalist, fearful for his life, took cover in Italy.

The whole situation could serve perfectly as a plot for a political detective novel.

The rules of the genre dictate that the evidence will lead to the top of the power hierarchy.

The number of victims will grow as the investigation goes on, but in the long run no charge will be filed, though everything will be as clear as a day.

Litvinenko had accused the Kremlin and the Russian intelligence agencies of paving Putin’s way to power by blowing up residential houses in Moscow in 1999 and blaming Chechen rebels. Some of Litvinenko’s arguments were quite convincing, some not enough.

The case of the house explosions in Moscow will never be solved. The true story of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack in the US or the murder of John Kennedy and many other high profile cases of the 20th century will also never be revealed.

As a rule in these events, the official version loses its credibility with time while alternative versions lack evidence. The authorities ostentatiously refuse to examine these versions, and thus deflate them.

Private investigations generate contradictory facts and speculations. But the verdict is delivered by public opinion, which is always set against the powers that be.

Raising the ghosts of the past would be the most disadvantageous tactics for the Russian administration. Litivinenko, residing in London, was not a thorn in the side of the Russian authorities.

His version of the story behind the explosions in Moscow is just one of a number, and not the most convincing. But when a former KGB agent becomes a murder victim, his accusations gain credibility and the whole affair moves to the front burner.

The Kremlin’s foes will not miss a chance to use the poisoning of Litvinenko as one more argument against the authorities. Moscow will again be seen by the West as a capital of the “Evil Empire”. What is to the Kremlin’s benefit in all that?

It is only in “first approximation” that the critics of the present regime seem to be the only victims of the current events. If we consider the situation in more detail, we find that the authorities are extremely vulnerable to such developments.

The blows hit those in power, leaving the opposition leaders safe and sound. As a result the opposition gets its martyrs and the authorities are challenged.

Some pro-Kremlin analysts have even suggested that Litvinenko’s poisoning and the journalist’s murder are provocations and that the opposition itself and Boris Berezovsky in person have organised the affairs in order to discredit the Kremlin’s ruling elite.

But it’s difficult to think of Berezovsky trying to kill his closest associate in London. However vicious he might be, he is not crazy.

The 1999 explosions in Moscow reflected the struggle for power within the ruling elite. The current murders and murder attempts have the same nature.

Neither Putin nor Berezovsky would contract such murders – for both of them the possibility of the backlash is higher than possible revenues.

I think there are other stakeholders at a lower level who pursue their own interests and use their own methods.

Intensification of the struggle for power is the result of their activity. The less stable the situation in the country is, the more there is ground for drastic changes in the political life of the country.

And undermining Russia’s position in the world will permit the political elites to retain control over the new president, who will be elected next year. They want to make him a hostage of those who have taken him to power.

Dirty and ineffective political tricks will make Putin’s successor dependent on forces behind the Kremlin’s throne.

The Big Game is on and it’s not the presidential post that is at stake. It is the leverage of control over whoever is in this post.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a director of the Institute for Globalisation Studies in Moscow.


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Sat 9 Dec 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2030
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