Anti-Russian conspirators killed KGB spy

The one suspect not being named in Russia's state-dominated media is President Vladimir Putin, reports Fred Weir.

india Updated: Dec 03, 2006 20:51 IST
Fred Weir
Fred Weir

Anti-Russian conspirators seeking to blacken the Kremlin's reputation are behind the London assassination of exiled former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko and the bizarre trail of radiation discovered by British police that points across the airways toward Moscow.

At least that is the view from Russia, where the pro-Kremlin media has been churning out a variety of alternative theories as which culprit may have slipped deadly Polonium-210 to the hapless Litvinenko, who died of advanced radiation poisoning in a London hospital late last month.

The one suspect not being named in Russia's state-dominated media is the man who was fingered by Litvinenko himself in a dramatic deathbed statement: President Vladimir Putin.

"The potential list of those who stood to benefit from Litvinenko's death is a long one," said a typical analysis in the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda last week. "One thing is certain, however. A scandal such as this one was not in the interests of the Russian authorities."

Litvinenko, a former anti-organized crime fighter for the FSB, the KGB's successor agency, defected to London six years ago bringing sensational claims about the Kremlin's alleged involvement in a series of 1999 terrorist bombings that changed the political mood in Russia and helped bring the tough-talking former KGB officer, Putin, to power.

He fell in with the notoriously fractious and intrigue-ridden Russian emigre community, and reputedly worked for Boris Berezovsky, a super-wealthy tycoon and former inner-Kremlin manipulator who was driven out of Russia and stripped of his property in one of Putin's first actions as president.

The leading theory in the official press is that Litvinenko may have voluntarily killed himself, or was murdered by his fellow anti-Putin exiles, in order to generate exactly the anti-Kremlin media storm that has gripped the Western media.

Berezovsky, a man of shady reputation, is the most frequently mentioned suspect. "Think about where the first traces of polonium were found (in Berezovsky's office)," says an analysis in the pro-government daily Izvestia.

"Think about the fact that Litvinenko also visited a security firm that day. Perhaps his conversation with Berezovsky that morning turned unpleasant. Perhaps, after that conversation, Litvinenko feared for his life and tried to hire some bodyguards. Butit was too late."

Another theory floated in the Russian media is that Litvinenko may have been trafficking in illicit nuclear materials, and was accidentally poisoned by his own contraband merchandise.

Many experts say that the timing of the high-profile killing Litvinenko argues against any personal involvement by Putin. Litvinenko died on the eve of a key Russia-European Union summit, where Putin was forced to shelve regular business and defend himself against the lurid murder allegations.

"Why would Putin embarass himself in such a way?" says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. "That just doesn't make sense."

A few Russian experts suggest, in whispered tones, that the spiking political violence may be fallout from an accelerating power struggle between Kremlin factions who are jockeying for influence in advance of 2008, when Putin is scheduled to step down.

One suggestion is that "enemies of Putin" in the hard-line silovik faction, comprised of members of the secret services, may be trying to drive a wedge between Russia and the West in order to fuel growing nationalist sentiment and improve chances for one of their number to be the next president.

Another is that "friends of Putin" are deliberately implicating him in the murders in order to convince him not to leave at all -- since, out of power, he might not be safe from prosecution -- and to grant himself a third term of office by amending the constitution.

"The secret services have come to power in this country, and their man is president," says Yevgenia Albats, author of a book about the KGB. "But I fear some of these agencies could be out of control, and they may no longer be reporting on everything to Putin."

First Published: Dec 03, 2006 20:51 IST