After the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya I predicted that there would be a following up to this story. Unfortunately, I was right. Alexander Litvinenko’s suspected poisoning has become a headliner this week, but rather in Britain than in Russia. Which is quite logical – the English people won’t just stand and watch a political exile living in England under British asylum being dispatched.
A few days after the event Scotland Yard confirmed publicly that Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who was admitted to British citizenship only a month ago, was poisoned. On Friday November 24th he died. Alongside with this announcement, just as one would have expected, Litvinenko’s employer, or at least sponsor in London, Boris Berezovsky hastened to name the main suspect – Vladimir Putin.
The assault on Litvinenko seems to be connected to the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya what makes the plot more twisted. The investigators believe that the former KGB agent was poisoned in a Japanese restaurant where he met with an Italian journalist who allegedly possessed data concerning the Politkovskaya case. After being interrogated by the British detectives the journalist fearful for his life took cover somewhere in Italy.
The whole situation could perfectly serve as a plot to 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 will go 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. Some of the Litvinenko’s arguments were quite convincing, some not enough. Anyway, the case of the house explosions in Moscow will never be solved just as the true story of the September 11th terrorist attack in the US or the murder of John Kennedy and many other high-profile cases of the XX century will never be revealed. There are a plenty of similar examples in history like the disappearance of two princes of York in the Tower of London in the mid XV century. The case had neither been properly investigated nor been solved. It is still a cold case.
As a rule, the official version loses its credibility with time while alternative versions lack evidence, and the authorities ostentatiously refuse to examine these versions, and thus to deflate them. Private investigations generate contradictory facts and speculations. But the verdict is delivered by the 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 under the circumstances. Litivinenko, residing in London, was not a thorn in the side for the Russian authorities, all the more that his version of the explosions in Moscow in 1999 is just one in series and not the most convincing. But when the former KGB agent becomes victim of an attempt, his imputations 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 and to put it in line with such cases as the murder of Politkovskaya and the residential houses explosions in 1999. Moscow will again be seen from the West as a capital of the “evil Empire”. But what’s the Kremlin’s use in all that?
It is only in “first approximation” that the renowned critics of the present regime seem to be the only victims of the current events. If we consider the situation in more detail, we will find that the authorities are extremely vulnerable to such developments. The blows hit the commentators of the Big Game, living the opposition leaders safe and sound. As a result the opposition gets its martyrs and the authorities are brought into challenge. Under these circumstances the pro-Kremlin analysts have all reasons to assure that Litvinenko’s poisoning and the journalist’s murder are mere provocations and that the opposition itself and Boris Berezovsky in person have organized the affairs in order to discredit the Kremlin’s ruling elite.
For all that it’s difficult to think of Mr. Berezovsky trying to kill his closest associate in London. However vicious he might be, he is not crazy. Mr. Berezovsky perfectly understands that once Scotland Yard finds out something, he won’t get away with it.
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 President Putin nor Mr. Berezovsky would contract such murders – for both of them the possibility of the backlash of the event is higher than possible revenues. I reckon 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 the drastic changes in 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, making him a hostage of those who have led him to power. Dirty and ineffective political tricks will make the successor more 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 gets this post.
Boris Kagarlitsky is a Director of The Institute for Globalization Studies