Mystery surrounds Litvinenko’s murder

TORONTO: Just who fatally poisoned former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko in London remains unknown. The victim had no doubt. He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of giving the order to kill him. ‘Those bastards have got me’ he said on his deathbed. The favoured weapons of Soviet “wet affairs” assassination units were undetectable poisons developed by Moscow’s top secret “Lab X” that made victims appear to have died from natural causes.

Ukraine’s nationalist leader Viktor Yushchenko, Chechen independence fighter Khattab and now Litvinenko were all victims of untraceable poisons. PLO leader Yasser Arafat may also have been victim of a similar toxin.

Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov was poisoned in London in 1978. In 2004, exiled Chechen president Salim Yandarbiyev was murdered by Russian agents in Qatar.

Archives of Bulgaria’s intelligence service – which often performed “wet affairs” for the KGB are due to be opened shortly. Three senior archivists of these files have “committed suicide”, two recently.

The Litvinenko affair is incredibly murky and just as fascinating. To understand it, go back to 1989.

As the Soviet Union began crumbling, I was the first western journalist given access to KGB’s top brass, headquarters, and archives. “KGB is a powerful force behind modernisation and reform”, I reported from Moscow that year, adding that KGB’s brightest officers from the elite First Chief Directorate had decided to abandon the communists and seize control of business and government.

The First Directorate’s agents, including up-and-comer Vladimir Putin, were Russia’s best-educated, most sophisticated citizens. They knew communism had wrecked Russia. KGB chiefs told me in 1989 they wanted a “Russian Pinochet” – a strongman who would bring in capitalism and make Russia and Russians work.

Today, two decades later, former KGB officers run the Kremlin, Russia’s government, and much of its industry.

As the USSR collapsed, a group of financial opportunists now known as the “oligarchs” grabbed control of its industries and resources. Led by Boris Berezhovsky, they formed the core support for Boris Yeltsin’s stumbling regime – with huge amounts of covert US finance.

The KGB – which divided in 1991 into the foreign SVR and internal FSB – viewed Berezovsky and other oligarchs as traitors and foreign agents

In 1991, the Chechens, who had battled Russian colonial rule for 300 years, demanded independence from Russia like its other former republics. Berezovsky backed their calls.

In 1994, Yelstin provoked a war and sent his army to crush Chechen independence. Savage Russian bombing and shelling killed up to 100,000 Chechens.

In a military miracle, Chechen fighters defeated Russian forces and drove them out. In 1997, Yeltsin signed a peace treaty granting Chechnya independence.

But the “siloviki” – Russia’s security and military apparatus – were outraged and vowed revenge. They discredited Yeltsin as a drunken buffoon.

During 1999, Moscow and a provincial city were hit by a wave of apartment building bombings that killed 300 people. Panic swept Russia. The bombings were blamed on “Chechen Islamic terrorists”. But Moscow police caught a team of SVR agents red handed planting explosives in a residential building.

This awkward fact was hushed up. Then Prime Minister Putin called for total war “to wipe out Chechen terrorism”. Outraged Russians rallied behind him. Yeltsin was subsequently replaced by then little-known prime minister.

Putin used the bombings as a pretext to send his army to invade and re-conquer Chechnya. Russians gave him a huge electoral mandate in 2000 effectively endorsing one-man rule.

The parallels to the 9/11 attacks on American a year later were uncanny.

Lt Col Alexander Litvinenko wrote a book claiming his own agency, FSB, staged the apartment bombings, and allied himself to Berezhovsky, who had emerged as Putin’s principal rival for power. In 1998, Litvinenko publicly claimed the secret police planned to kill Berezovsky.

Litvinenko was jailed, then fled into exile in Britain. Berezovsky, charged with fraud, later followed him to exile in London where he continues plotting to overthrow Putin.

Shortly before Litvinenko was poisoned, he was investigating last month’s murder in Moscow of crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. She had courageously exposed Russian criminality and rights abuses in Chechnya. Politkovskaya told me she was marked for death by ‘silovoki’ and Russian gangsters. Litvinenko and Berezovsky accused Putin of authoring Politkovskaya’s murder. The Kremlin strongly denied it.

Both crimes have further damaged Russia’s image, and tarnished President Putin’s image as a strong but law-abiding leader. Yet one wonders why the Kremlin would risk igniting such a storm just to silence a minor figure whose accusations went largely unheeded.

Perhaps some thin-skinned ‘siloviki’ in Moscow reverted to old Soviet ways. The Kremlin blames a feud among Russian exiles. But the blood spots connect right to Moscow. One feels a chilly breeze from the days of the Cold War.

–By Eric S Margolis Special for the Gulf Times

Gulf Times, Sunday,26 November, 2006

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~ by anick on November 26, 2006.

One Response to “Mystery surrounds Litvinenko’s murder”

  1. That\\\\\\\’s very interesting. I hope to read more later.

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