The journalist, the spy and Vladimir Putin

My following article appears in today’s edition of Crikey:

The recent London murder of former KGB and FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko has once again focused world attention on the increasingly authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin.

Russian authorities are determined to deny any responsibility for the targeting of a key Putin critic, but evidence already points to Kremlin involvement (though this being modern Russia, any number of theories are plausible.)

It was announced overnight that traces of polonium 210 had been found at the London offices of exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky (a supposed friend of Litvinenko.)

Yesterday’s Crikey featured Guy Rundle’s concise summary of the likely reasons behind Litvinenko’s death, but there are many other angles to this story that require examination.

Just before he was hospitalised with radiation poisoning, Litvinenko spoke at London’s Frontline Club about the October assassination of leading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

He didn’t mince his words and directly blamed Putin for her death. While he didn’t provide direct evidence at a public forum, it was clear that he believed Putin must be held responsible for his country’s decline. Litvinenko was known to have been investigating Politkovskaya’s death, so was he targeted because he knew too much about her killers?

Last Friday… the BBC screened a previously unseen interview with Politkovskaya. She alleged that Putin deliberately provoked terrorism, including the 2002 Dubrovka theatre siege and 2004 Beslan school massacre.

“The birth of democracy was hard. But it was born, and he is killing it,” Politkovskaya said. “His years in the Kremlin have meant that the next generation will have to do a great deal, take a giant leap, to get out of the problems.”

She went on to accuse Putin of creating a new generation of terrorists, partly due to his inflaming of the war in Chechnya and leaving “a Soviet country with a downtrodden media and with strong fascist undercurrents.”

Two journalists at Politkovskaya’s paper have now received death threats, one for investigating the figures behind her killing. It is unsurprising that so little independent media exists in Russia in these circumstances.

With the British Home Secretary John Reid issuing a statement in the Commons regarding Litvinenko’s death – though he places no blame at Putin’s feet – a diplomatic row between Russia and the UK is looking likely.

The deaths of both Litvinenko and Politkovskaya display a worrying tendency to eliminate a government’s opponents. International pressure may be muted, however, by the pulling power of Russia’s immense natural resources.