A modern-day spy story
Death by radiation of ex-Russian agent draws parallels to the country’s legendary, shadowy KGB
By Vanora Bennett, Special to Newsday
LONDON, Dec 20, 2006 - When Alexander Litvinenko was buried in London earlier this month, his body so corrupted by polonium-210 it had to be encased in a lead coffin. By then, the Russian ex-spy’s surreal death by radiation poisoning had already started not one, but two, rival murder inquiries in different countries.
With dozens of other people testing positive for polonium-210 on a radiation trail reaching from London to Germany to Russia, the case has again highlighted fears about contemporary Russia’s political dark side.
Litvinenko, an avowed enemy of current Russian authorities, died in a London hospital Nov. 23, accusing Russia’s President Vladimir Putin of killing him. He had been fed a fatal dose of a radioactive isotope many times more toxic than cyanide, a substance it would need the sophistication of a state-sponsored entity to produce.
“You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life,” said a statement signed by Litvinenko and read out to the press on the morning after his death.
History of controversy
A British citizen when he died, Litvinenko was no stranger to controversy. He first came to public attention in 1998, when he was fired from Russia’s FSB security police — the ex-KGB – after he and several colleagues held a press conference to declare the organisation had turned to organised crime. He said he had been ordered to do hit jobs on the FSB’s most prominent enemies, including Russia’s first billionaire, Boris Berezovsky.
He spent nine months in a Moscow prison on unproven corruption charges before escaping to Britain, where he won political asylum in 2000. Protected by Berezovsky, who had also moved to London after falling out with Putin, Litvinenko spent the next six years trying to generate headlines about what he alleged were Putin’s misdeeds.
He accused Putin of taking office after engineering bombings of apartment blocks that killed hundreds, blaming the attacks on Chechen terrorists, and winning election in an increasingly nationalist state by starting a war in Muslim Chechnya.
Litvinenko accused the FSB of training al-Qaida operative sin southern Russia. He said Putin was a pedophile. His articles, written for the Ukrainian and Chechen press, were circulated by email to a group of sympathisers. But the allegations seemed too far-fetched to attract much attention.
Yet his death has made some in the West more sceptical about Russia’s democratic credentials under Putin. They cite the sharp reduction in press freedom and political plurality since the president was elected in 2000, the jailing of opposition figures and a number of unexplained deaths. Meanwhile, Russia’s leaders are increasingly irritated at being lectured by the West over their human rights record.
The British government has said little publicly about the prospect of a foreign attack on a British citizen, on British soil. Northern Ireland Minister Peter Hain, who is close to Prime Minister Tony Blair, said Putin’s “success in binding a disintegration nation together … must be balanced against the fact that there have been huge attacks on individual liberty and on democracy”.
“Russia’s conflicts are erupting all over the world,” said the actress and activist Vanessa Redgrave, who was a friend of Litvinenko and campaigns with the London-based Russian dissidents who are Putin’s fiercest critics. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s London or somewhere else. The main fact is that the old KGB are in power.”
Mystery deaths or near-deaths referred to by Putin’s opponents range from the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who attacked Putin’s policies in print (she was shot dead in Moscow this October after surviving poisoning in 2004) to Ukraine’s pro-Western President Victor Yushchenko (who survived poisoning during his election campaign in 2004).
One theory debated in the British press is that Litvinenko’s killers assumed their poison was so rare it would escape detection. British experts identified the killer substance only hours before he died. The highly unusual murder method is itself seen by Putin opponents as proof of likely FSB involvement.
Moscow sees things differently. Putin himself has scarcely mentioned the Litvinenko case, beyond saying that there was no proof of violence.
But Britain’s popular BBC World Service radio broadcasts have been off-air in Russia since the day Litvinenko’s accusation that Putin killed him was aired, for what Russian authorities say are “technical reasons”. Several Moscow politicians have hinted that Berezovsky, a Jew reviled by the Russian establishment as a mob godfather, who makes no secret of his wish to bring down Putin’s government — is a likelier assassin than the Russian state. His supposed motivation: to damage the Russian government’s reputation.
Shutting out British
Russia’s police have placed severe limitations on British police work in Russia. British detectives visiting Moscow in the past two weeks were told they could only observe Russian interviews with witnesses and potential suspects, not conduct their own.
British police wanted to conduct their own interviews with Dmitri Kovtun and Andrei Lugovoi, two ex-KGB colleagues of Litvinenko. These ex-spies, who later worked in Berezovsky’s security force, had a drink with Litvinenko in London on the day he fell ill, in a Millennium Hotel bar where traces of polonium have reportedly been found in a cup, and where eight staff members were contaminated with low levels of polonium.
Polonium traces have been found on several planes that flew between Moscow, Germany and London in the two weeks before Litvinenko’s illness began – on days that either Kovtun or Lugovoi were traveling around Europe on business – as well as in apartments used by Kovtun in Hamburg, Germany. British police have not confirmed Kovtun and Lugovoi as the businessmen they say are their chief suspects.
Russian media has reported that these two men are, like Litvinenko, victims of poisoning. Moscow has launched its own investigation into the poisoning of its citizens. Prosecutors want to travel to Britain to question Berezovsky and another member of his circle: Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen separatist who was Litvinenko’s closest friend. British authorities have resisted previous Russian attempts to extradite both Berezovsky and Zakayev.
Zakayev says he does not fear for his life but that the West should have realised Putin’s Russia might take lives when, this spring, the Russian parliament passed laws defining criticism of state authorities as extremism and giving the FSB carte blanche to liquidate extremists.
“At the time, we held a press conference and issued a personal plea to Tony Blair, saying, ‘you must protect us’,” Zakayev said. “What Litvinenko said was, ‘the point of these laws is to come and commit crimes in your country, and the first victims will be us.’”