Dec 16, 2006

The Litvinenko Affair: Murder Most Opaque

In its Friday's special report, The Economist wonders "what a poisoned Russian agent tells us about the way that Russia is governed". Its article offers a broad range of theories of who was responsible for Litvinenko's death but the main point remains that at the end of the day, the 'who' may not be as important. What is important, however, is that the case actually caused the controversy it did and put Vladimir Putin's Russia under microscope.

As seems to be the case, Litvinenko was nothing like the Russian KGB superagent turned human rights advocate as he was portrayed in Western press. "He was not really a spy, as he has been described, but worked for domestic units of the FSB, one of the KGB's post-Soviet successors. He has been labelled a defector; but few people took the information he brought out of Russia when he fled to Britain seriously." However, his death marked a drastic turn in how Russia is viewed. The war in Chechnya, the contract murders in Moscow and the consolidation of power in the hands of the siloviki is one issue. The fact that the perception exists that the Russian state actually could reach out and assassinate a British citizen in London (regardless whether it actually was the case) is another issue. But the two cannot be viewed in vacuum. Litvinenko's murder was the proverbial last drop that caused the bucket to overflow. All of the sudden, the situation in Russia cannot be ignored any longer. Putin's shortcomings that were conveniently pushed aside when we wanted Russian oil and natural gas and when we wanted to be part of Moscow's stock and real estate market boom are suddenly exposed as never before.

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