Kremlin intrigue feeds theories on poisoned-spy case
Who was behind ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko's highly public demise?
Even seminal spy novelist John le Carré would have been hard put to craft such an inscrutable web of shadowy figures and murky alliances.Skip to next paragraph
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As Scotland Yard expands to Moscow its investigation of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko's poisoning, the "whodunit" theories now implicate just about every possible player:
•Enemies – or friends – of President Vladimir Putin
•Mr. Putin himself
•Russia's secret services
•The St. Petersburg mafia
•Mr. Litvinenko's friend, Boris Berezovsky, and even Litvinenko himself.
But another theory gathering momentum in Russia is that Litvinenko's highly public demise – taken with the October murder of Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya – are byproducts of intense jockeying for power ahead of Putin's departure in 2008.
"Putin has not yet made his plans clear over who will be his successor or what the process will be," says Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Gorbachev Foundation, a Moscow think tank run by the former Soviet leader. "In the absence of clarity, the competitive groups may be beginning to act on their own, to reshape the political field to suit their own needs. It must be stressed that Russia is not a European-style democracy, where political struggle is limited by laws and constitutions."
Who benefits from Litvinenko's death?
One suggestion is that "enemies of Putin" in the hard-line silovik Kremlin faction, composed of members of the secret services, may be trying to drive a wedge between Russia and the West to fuel nationalist sentiment at home and improve chances for one of their number to become the next president.
"Politkovskaya and Litvinenko's murders reflect an internal struggle within the Russian elite," says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the independent Institute of Globalization Problems in Moscow. "Some groupings are very interested in aggravating the situation, because the more tensions rise, the more Putin becomes dependent upon them."
Most Russian experts doubt any personal involvement by Putin in the alleged assassinations, but agree that the political consequences – domestic and global – can't help but fall at his doorstep. Indeed, some suggest, they may have been deliberately designed to do just that. Ms. Politkovskaya was shot on Putin's birthday, and just days before a crucial Russia-European Union summit meeting. Litvinenko's spectacular death-by-radiation in London last month came on the eve of another key European conference attended by Putin. "Everything has been going so well for the Kremlin, economically and politically, so why would Putin want to disrupt that?" asks Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.
Another theory here is that "friends of Putin" are deliberately implicating him in the murders in order to convince him not to quit at all – since, out of power, he might not be safe from prosecution – and to grant himself a third term of office by amending the Constitution.
Polonium-210 – extremely unstable, fissiparous, and dangerous to those meddling with it – may be an apt metaphor for Putin's Kremlin and its turbulent inner politics. Over nearly seven years in power, Putin has built a traditionally Russian top-down system of power in whose workings he, personally, is the indispensible component. Yet Putin has announced that he will resign, as the country's 1993 Constitution prescribes, when his second term expires.
"This is the source of great uncertainty within the system, and it will increase as 2008 grows closer," says Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "When you have a system that's hinged totally on one figure, any change is fraught with destabilization."
Some Kremlin experts here say the murderers will be found among the back-biting Russian-émigré community that Litvinenko inhabited, where intrigues and conspiracies allegedly abound. In particular, they point to exiled anti- Kremlin tycoon Boris Berezovsky, whom they accuse of trying to destabilize Russia in a possible bid to overthrow the Kremlin leadership in the troubled run-up to 2008. Russia's chief prosecutor, Yury Chaika, told journalists Monday that evidence implicating Mr. Berezovsky will be handed over when British investigators visit Moscow this week to pursue leads in the Litvinenko case.