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The Dark Heart of the Kremlin

Below is an exclusive translation from the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

The Dark Heart of the Kremlin Russia and Britain are in conflict over the poisoning of former agent Alexander Litvinenko. This is the escalation of an old and bloody game BY REINHARD VESER, (Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 22. 07. 2007) FRANKFURT. A corpse and a large number of suspects, traces which lead nowhere and clues which appear to be scattered at random. Eight months before the presidential elections in Russia, Russian politics is as exciting as any murder mystery. The protagonists are flamboyant, the action taking place in the Kremlin is opaque, and the facts which are known enable us to link a murder in London with a power struggle surrounding the president. Like many murder mysteries, part of the action in this one takes place in the past: The main characters’ paths have crossed before. One thing which is not shrouded in ambiguity is the name of the victim: Alexander Litvinenko, a former agent of the Russian interior secret service, the FSB. But why he was poisoned with polonium last year in London, and who stood to benefit from this is unclear. In both London and Moscow, it is assumed that the murderers would have required a corpse for further propaganda purposes. Immediately after the death of Litvinenko, who on his deathbed blamed Vladimir Putin, Russian politicians were voicing suspicions that Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, in exile in London, had ordered the murder in order to place the Russian president in a bad light. An unequal duel is currently being waged between the two men, in which Russia demands that Berezovsky, who is accused in his home country of embezzlement and incitement to violent subversion, be extradited from Great Britain. Berezovsky in turn encourages political and media attacks on Putin wherever he can. The fact that Berezovsky was granted political asylum in Great Britain in 2003 has since led to a cooling of relations between Moscow and London. Many Russians would not put anything past Berezovsky. The media loyal to the Kremlin have played their part by portraying him in recent years first as an unscrupulous and ruthless capitalist and then as state enemy number one, a man who finances anything that damages Russia, from Chechen terrorists to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. This portrayal appeared plausible because Berezovsky had already become the living symbol for the bloody battles for distribution, Kremlin intrigues, and the chaos of the 1990s. Although he was not the wealthiest “oligarch” to acquire the most valuable sectors of Russian industry under Boris Yeltsin, he was in political terms the most influential: Berezovsky was the string-puller of the group known as the “family”, which was controlled by Yeltsin when the latter was incapacitated due to illness or alcohol. At the end of the 1990s, the group surrounding the “family” also included Putin, who at that time was the head of the interior secret service, the FSB. Putin’s nomination as presidential candidate was above all thanks to the work of Berezovsky, or so Berezovsky himself says. However, immediately after his election in March 2000, Putin began to oust the Yeltsin “family” from power. At the end of Putin’s first year in office, Berezovsky decided to live in exile in the West, from where he continued his fight against his former protégée. In this fight, a key role was played by Alexander Litvinenko. The FSB agent first appeared in the Russian public eye in November 1998, when he claimed that he had been ordered to murder Berezovsky. The affair ran into the sand, and Litvinenko was sued due to abuse of his position, after which he emigrated to Great Britain with his family. The circle surrounding Berezovsky claims that prior to Putin’s election, there was only one serious difference of opinion between Berezovsky and Putin, namely their attitude towards Litvinenko: While Berezovsky regarded him as his rescuer, Putin branded him a traitor who had sullied the name of the secret service. Litvinenko’s task during Berezovsky’s campaign against the president was to make a frontal attack on Putin’s credibility. In his book published in 2002, he accused the FSB of conducting three bomb attacks in summer 1999 on residential blocks in Moscow and Volgodonsk, in which nearly 250 people were killed. Officially, the attacks were ascribed to Chechen terrorists and used by the Kremlin as a reason for the Second Chechen War. Putin, the FSB chief who had just been appointed prime minister, owed this harsh reaction his lightning rise from unknown bureaucrat to the most popular politician in Russia. Litvinenko was not the first person who suspected the FSB, yet his book caused major reverberations both in Russia and the West, thanks to the fact that Berezovsky used his money to support the book’s dissemination. The accusations are based on an incident in Ryazan. Shortly after the explosions in Moscow and Volgodonsk, two FSB employees were arrested while depositing sacks filled with the same explosive used in the earlier attacks into the cellar of a multi-storey residential block. According to the official explanation, this was to test the public vigilance. Before Litvinenko’s death, four people who had pursued the FSB connection had been murdered in Russia. The supporters of this theory regard this as an indication that the victims were on the right trail. Yet those who were murdered were also linked to Berezovsky, at least for a certain period of time. For this reason, each murder was quickly followed by the identical conspiracy theory that the London exile was attempting to pin the crime on the Kremlin in order to add credibility to his propaganda. Accordingly, Litvinenko’s murder was simply an escalation of an old and bloody game to the international level – no matter which theory you choose to support. In a murder mystery in which there are two obvious suspects, it is advisable to look for clues which point to a third possibility. Under Putin, the Kremlin may have reverted to being a closed institution, but it is clear that a battle for power is being waged there between two factions. They are represented by the two presidential candidates, the first deputy prime ministers Dmitrii Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, both of whom have accompanied Putin on his career path. Like Putin, Ivanov comes from the KGB, while Medvedev is an ally of Putin’s from his time in St. Petersburg’s city administration and is considered a market economy-oriented technocrat. The economic backbone of the secret services is the state-owned oil company Rosneft, which took over the assets of the now defunct Yukos Group, while Medvedev is chairman of the board at Gasprom. Medvedev is no democrat and clearly has imperial ambitions for Russia, while remaining conciliatory towards the West. The anti-Western tone in Russian politics is set predominantly by the secret service faction and is also used against internal enemies. There is much to suggest that the secret services faction also intends to mobilise with anti-Western resentment for the Duma elections in December and the presidential elections in March 2008. In this regard, a limited conflict would be extremely helpful. Even before the escalation that ensued from Litvinenko’s murder, media close to the Kremlin dealt with the case by going on the offensive in order to turn it against London. Here, a key role was played by murder suspect Andrei Lugovoi. He claimed at the end of May that Litvinenko had attempted to recruit him for a “special operation” against Putin by the British secret service. His task was reputedly to be gaining access to a “top state official”, from whom the British hoped to obtain compromising material about Putin. Nothing more has since been heard regarding this part of Lugovoi’s statement. It may be that this will remain unchanged, but it is also possible that this name will serve to deal a blow to the opponents of the secret service faction. An answer to the question of who murdered Litvinenko would not be forthcoming, but it is likely that we would find out who stands to benefit from his death. Boxed Text: Russia is not obliged to extradite. In the Litvinenko case, Britain is demanding that Andrei Lugovoi be extradited, although there is no legal basis for this. No state is obliged to extradite, unless there is a reason to do so on grounds of human rights. There is no agreement between the two countries regarding the matter. Russia has ratified the European treaty on extradition. However, even after this, each contractual party retains the right to refuse to extradite its citizens. As in other continental European countries, the Russian Constitution forbids the extradition of its own citizens. By contrast, countries in the Anglo-Saxon legal world are not infrequently prepared to extradite its own citizens to a foreign country if they have committed a crime there. This is due to the strict application of the territorial principle in common law states. In general, they do not sentence people for crimes committed in other countries, but instead choose to extradite them. On the other hand, countries such as Germany do not extradite their citizens, but sentence them for crimes committed abroad. Britain insists on extradition because Litvinenko was murdered on British soil. However, this entails neither an obligation to extradite on the part of Russia, nor an obligation to change its constitution, as has been posited by some in Britain. Incidentally, Britain has also recently rejected Russian requests for extradition.