Features

Poisoned relations

International | The murder of a high-profile Putin critic raises questions about Moscow's direction and its intentions abroad

Issue: "Looking at India," Dec. 9, 2006

The diagnosis was so unlikely, it came too late for Alexander Litvinenko: radiation poisoning by polonium-210, a highly rare and lethal element discovered by Marie Curie. When Litvinenko died on Thanksgiving Day, three weeks after he fell ill, the former Russian spy, 43 had lost all his hair and lay ashen in a London hospital bed.

A minor panic among London residents soon followed, as police found traces of radiation at the sushi bar where Litvinenko ate, a hotel and security firm he visited, and the offices of Russian oligarch and friend Boris Berezovsky. About 1,700 people called in the first week worried about radiation exposure, and authorities deemed at least 18 cases serious enough to examine.

Litvinenko was a former colonel in Russia's Federal Security Service or FSB, the successor to the KGB. After becoming an adamant critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, he fled to the United Kingdom, where he became a citizen just weeks before he died.

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In his final hours, Litvinenko fingered Putin as his killer: "I can distinctly hear the beating of wings of the angel of death. . . . You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed."

British leaders were more circumspect in their reaction, choosing simply to criticize Putin's growing authoritarianism and demand Moscow's cooperation in the investigation.

But the circumstances of Litvinenko's apparent murder-of a British citizen on British soil, with the Kremlin as prime suspect-mean British-Russian relations have already cooled. As British prime minister Tony Blair traveled to NATO's summit in Riga, Latvia, last week, he said, "There is no diplomatic or political barrier in the way of [the] investigation going wherever it needs to go."

Litvinenko's death has also raised fresh concerns about Russia's political health as Putin concentrates more power in the Kremlin and constrains civil society. In July, Russia's upper house of parliament passed a law allowing the nation's military and special services to combat terrorism and "extremism" outside Russian borders, with the latter broadly defined. Parliament now has no democracy groups, either.

This year Russia also has imposed onerous new standards for nonprofits to re-register and report their activities, cumbersome for foreign groups, but potentially stifling for Russian organizations. Moscow now appoints regional governors who were once elected, independent television has faded, and pro-Putin tycoons are buying up newspapers.

Political assassinations also appear more frequent inside the country, though definite links to the FSB or Kremlin are rare, as are prosecutions. One example took place in October when a gunman shot and killed dogged journalist and Kremlin foe Anna Politkovskaya in her Moscow apartment. She reported widely on human-rights abuses in Chechnya and on government corruption.

Litvinenko was investigating Politkovskaya's murder when he died. He had also reportedly uncovered evidence of other intelligence plots: that it was the FSB, not Chechen terrorists, who bombed Moscow apartment buildings that killed 300 in 1999. After the attacks, Russia invaded Chechnya, beginning the decade's second disastrous war with the separatist region.

Kremlin infighting is also fertilizing a crop of conspiracy theories about who carried out Litvinenko's murder. One theory gaining traction is that the siloviki faction, made up of former military and KGB elements, wants to force Putin into a third term in 2008, when the next presidential election is due, thereby keeping its privileges. Another is that deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and the liberal faction staged the murder to discredit the siloviki and force Putin to discard his old cohorts. For Moscow's part, Russian officials accuse tycoon Berezovsky-whom Litvinenko warned of an assassination attempt-of killing his friend to discredit the Kremlin.

If the theories sound like the stuff of James Bond films and John le Carré novels, they hold fears based on fact, not fiction. With no defined mechanism to choose a new president, inner-sanctum intrigues are likely only to intensify as Russia inches toward 2008. "Some people are worried that if the siloviki group were to gain dominance, they would move Russia in a more authoritarian direction," said John B. Dunlop, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. But since Putin was himself an outsider, "almost anything can be expected."

With Litvinenko's death, the Jamestown Foundation and other Washington think-tank experts asserted that polonium-210 is tightly controlled, and likely came from Rosatom, Russia's federal nuclear agency. "The poisons department must have provided instructions and special equipment to smuggle in and position the Polonium," analyst Pavel Felgenhauer wrote. "Up to ten different departments and ministries would need to work in close cohesion to perform the operation."

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