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Don’t rush to judgment

In our desire to fulfil a James Bond fantasy, we have too hastily pointed the finger at the Kremlin

Tom Parfitt in Moscow
Monday November 27, 2006
The Guardian

Imagine a simple reporting assignment, the brilliant investigative journalist Nick Davies said at a seminar a few years ago. You go into an office in London and you want to know what the weather is like outside. You ask one person and he says: «It’s pouring down.» Then you ask another, who replies: «It’s beautiful and sunny.»

Now you have two options. The first is to rush back to the office and file a story: «Controversy raged over the state of the weather in London last night as … » And the second is to look out of the window.

In our desperate desire to fulfil a James Bond fantasy over the death of the former spy Alexander Litvinenko, we seem to have forgotten to look out of the window, however smudged and scratched it may be.

Litvinenko, a former lieutenant colonel with Russia’s federal security service (FSB) who had lived in Britain for six years, was apparently poisoned with the rare radioactive isotope polonium 210. This is tragic, shocking and mysterious. Yet, looking on from Moscow, the response in parts of the British press seems little short of hysterical.

Most worrying is the assumption that the Kremlin is bang to rights. In an editorial on Saturday, the Times argued that Vladimir Putin «must prove by deeds he is not linked to Litvinenko’s murder».

Why must he? There is not a scrap of evidence to show that the Russian president was involved. Police are hardly out of the blocks and we’re already up for some kangaroo justice.

Russia has killed people abroad, it is true, and recently. In 2004 two military-intelligence agents blew up the Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar (the Americans helped). That was wrong, but Yandarbiyev was a real threat, channelling funding to militants on Russian soil. Litvinenko, however, was a spent force as a critic of Putin. Even in purely pragmatic terms, the notion that the president would order his murder in Britain on the eve of an EU-Russia summit seems unlikely.

Naturally, I’ll be the first to eat my shapka if Putin turns out to be to blame. The siloviki — the security-service veterans around the president — may have killed Litvinenko as a shot across the bows of competing clans.

There is a possibility that rogue elements are at work in the security services, or that Litvinenko was murdered for acquiring damaging evidence about the assassination in Moscow last month of the investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya (although her colleagues at Novaya Gazeta doubt that). Of course, not being in control of the FSB is a potentially more damaging indictment of Putin than having sent a note to its boss, Nikolai Patrushev, saying «get Litvinenko». But we need to recognise that there are other actors in this drama besides our latest favourite tyrant.

The idea that Litvinenko was a crusading dissident in the mould of Alexander Solzhenitsyn is risible. People who had never heard of him two weeks ago are now trumpeting his «courageous, high-profile stand against the Kremlin». The fact is that Litvinenko was a paid employee of Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch and archenemy of Putin.

Berezovsky and Litvinenko, who both fled Moscow for Britain in 2000, first met in 1994. Litvinenko, as a serving FSB officer, was investigating a car bombing that decapitated Berezovsky’s driver and narrowly missed killing the businessman. At the time there were many vicious fights between criminal clans in Moscow. By his own admission, Litvinenko worked in an FSB unit that planned extrajudicial killings.

Berezovsky and Litvinenko’s relationship was forged in this atmosphere. By then, Berezovsky, a car dealer and multimillionaire, had penetrated the Kremlin and was pulling the strings. But his power began to slip and his business dealings fell under suspicion. In this context, the appearance of Litvinenko at a press conference in 1998 claiming his FSB bosses had ordered him to kill Berezovsky looked more like a clever political ruse than heroic whistleblowing.

Similar suspicions arise today. A familiar band of Russian malcontents have been feeding us with apocalyptic quotes for more than a week.

Unfortunately, radioactive isotopes like the polonium 210 that killed Litvinenko are available on the international black market, not only to special services. It is entirely plausible that a powerful foe whose path Litvinenko crossed in the dark, internecine fights of the late 1990s has crawled back and exacted revenge. That would be a sad reflection of today’s Russia, but it would not be «state-sponsored terrorism».


Один комментарий to “Don’t rush to judgment”

  1. leptin 800 green coffee…

    Идiотъ • Don’t rush to judgment…

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