There are critical differences between the killings of Litvinenko and Politkovskayaby Thomas de Waal / January 14, 2007 / Leave a comment
Like many others who knew her, I was devastated by the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, Russia’s bravest human rights journalist. Now my dismay is compounded by the way her death has been subsumed in the disturbing but much murkier story of the death of Alexander Litvinenko. They are two very different stories—even if they suggest similar truths about today’s Russia.
The boyish features of Litvinenko were a fixture in London meetings and events about Russia over the last few years. He was undoubtedly a brave man, but I tended to avoid him because he was the protégé of a man who for me embodied the worst of Russia in the 1990s: the exiled businessman-turned-politician Boris Berezovsky.
Litvinenko’s allegations fed Berezovsky’s political vendetta against Vladimir Putin. Many of them seemed rehashed or politically skewed. Like others, Litvinenko suggested that the FSB, domestic successor to the KGB, might have been involved in the mysterious bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999, which killed some 200 people. If true, this was a terrifying prospect—but Litvinenko’s version ignored the role of his own patron. In 1999, Berezovsky was one of three or four people in charge of what the Kremlin called “Operation Successor,” the desperate search for an heir to Boris Yeltsin. Putin, then a relatively obscure official nominated to that role, was a political nobody compared to Berezovsky. It was the tough response to the Moscow bombings that helped propel him to the presidency. If there was indeed official collusion in the 1999 Moscow bombings, Berezovsky would most likely have known about it.
Berezovsky was one of the new Russian billionaires, who grabbed the assets of the old Soviet economy at bargain prices, fought brutal turf wars and dodged assassination attempts. In exile he remained a man with no obvious principles but, as the Americans say, “a big Rolodex,” using a bewildering network of people that included liberal parliamentarian Sergei Yushenkov, centrist Kremlin bureaucrat Ivan Rybkin, pro-western Chechen nationalist Akhmed Zakayev and Chechen Islamic ideologue Movladi Udugov—as well as ex-KGB agent Litvinenko. All bases were covered.
In London, it was hard not to be invited to Berezovsky’s projects and events. Some of them—such as a Chechen film festival—were genuinely worthwhile. Anna also took part. But I felt rather bemused when, after a single interview, I received a Christmas card from the ex-oligarch.
The horrible death of Litvinenko happened within the context of Berezovsky’s feud with Putin. He was a player in this murky game as well as a victim of it. And if the trail does lead back to Russia, Litvinenko’s killing will illustrate that the fundamental problems of post-Soviet Russia have passed from the era of Yeltsin to that of Putin.
The distribution of power is different. Yeltsin was the weak tsar who failed to arbitrate between competing oligarchs and courtiers. Putin has reinforced the institution of the presidency, co-opting those oligarchs who agreed to play his game, such as Roman Abramovich, while exiling or jailing those who did not, such as Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Yet under both leaders, power has been arbitrary and personalised and the law silent. Putin has stripped away the power of balancing institutions that were tentatively growing under Yeltsin, such as regional governorships and parliament, investing ever more power in the presidency. This superstructure is much too fragile and there is little to protect Russia in 2008 from another destructive power struggle to install the next tsar.
Two Putin innovations are especially damaging. He has extended the powers of the FSB, whose fingers now reach into every corner of society, from the oil industry to the army. That is why it is not too fanciful to imagine that rogue security agents, enjoying the climate of impunity, were responsible for the death of Litvinenko.
Putin has also suppressed the independence of the media, such that public debate is now less free than it was in the glasnost era of Gorbachev. Anna Politkovskaya was a shining exception to that trend. Though she worked for a mid-circulation newspaper, was given no access to television and was shunned by official circles, she still managed to champion the rights of the disenfranchised. Although Putin declared her death to be “insignificant,” at the time of her death there were several dozen court cases pending, based on articles she had written—many of which may collapse because their main witness is dead.
Russian society’s collective shrug of indifference at Anna’s death was distressing. So was the way Berezovsky was allowed to speak at a vigil in London in honour of Anna—she was not one of theirs. Anna was fearless, difficult, tormented and compassionate. She was also lonely: too few people, both in Russia and the west, listened to the news she was bringing from the dark zones of the oppressed. How cruel that the lawlessness she understood so well, and which killed her, is now obscuring the clarity of her message as well.