The mysterious London poisoning death of an exiled former KGB agent, who accused the Kremlin on his deathbed, has set off an emotionally charged debate over who's to blame and what it means for the future of Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
Some fear the country's unreformed secret services may be returning to their old methods of eliminating real and imagined enemies. But many defenders of Mr. Putin claim the slain spook's allegations are evidence of a sophisticated anti-Russian conspiracy at work.
Alexander Litvinenko, who died Thursday after ingesting a rare radioactive substance used mainly in space programs, was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and a close ally of exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a vociferous Putin foe.
In a terse statement last week, the Kremlin dismissed allegations of its involvement as "sheer nonsense" and offered to help British investigators with their inquiries into the alleged murder. But experts say it's not surprising that many people have been quick to assume that the former KGB must have had a hand in it. Experts say that's not surprising.
"In Russia we have secret services that were, not long ago, involved in mass arrests and executions of political opponents, and most of this they kept secret," says Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, an independent media watchdog. "People in this country tend to blame power for everything that happens, and they have their reasons," he says.
Some experts argue that old cold-war biases that no longer apply to Russia are behind the rush to condemn the Kremlin.
"Russia has changed, it is not the Soviet Union anymore," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin- connected analyst. "The security services were totally reformed in the 1990s, and it is not possible for them to carry out the kind of actions they're being accused of," he says.
Mr. Markov and other pro-Putin experts point their fingers toward Mr. Berezovsky, an ultrarich former inner-Kremlin operator who claims to have helped vault Putin to the presidency six years ago. After coming to power, Putin drove Berezovsky into exile in London, from where the former tycoon has orchestrated a sometimes venomous public relations campaign against the Kremlin.
Mr. Markov argues that Russian security services had no interest in killing Mr. Litvinenko, a minor cog in Berezovsky's machine, and that only the Kremlin's opponents have benefited from the ex-spy's spectacular death by radiation. "Enemies of Putin want to wreck Russia's stability in advance of (the presidential elections in) 2008," says Markov.
At a press conference last week Putin dismissed Litvinenko's deathbed fingering of a Kremlin agent as a "concoction" by unnamed political foes and added: "It's a pity that tragic events like death have been used for political provocations."
But Litvinenko's bizarre death may not be an isolated incident. It comes amid a spate of apparent political killings that have rocked Moscow in recent months, and raised anguished questions about Russia's direction under Putin.
In September a top Central Bank reformer, Andrei Kozlov, died in a hail of gunfire outside a Moscow stadium. Last month a crusading independent journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, was shot to death in her apartment building elevator. Ten days ago a dissident Chechen commander, Movladi Baisarov, who had come to Moscow to complain about abuses by pro-Moscow Chechen prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov, was gunned down on a downtown street by Chechen police, while Russian cops looked on.
The former USSR created a special organization called SMERSH, an acronym for "Death to Spies," to hunt down and destroy its enemies around the world. In a 2005 newspaper interview, former Soviet KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov claimed that period ended long ago, and that Russian secret services have not killed an enemy on foreign soil since the 1959 assassination of Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera in Munich.
In July of this year, the Russian State Duma passed a new law empowering security services to pursue "terrorists" anywhere, even in foreign countries.
Also, since Putin came to power there have been several murders and attempted killings – some involving exotic poisons – that critics say bear the hallmarks of the old KGB's methods.
• In 2002 a Saudi-born Chechen rebel leader, Omar ibn Khattab, died after receiving a letter with poisoned ink.
• In 2003 a leading Russian journalist and anti-Kremlin parliamentarian, Yury Shchekochikhin, died of what appeared to be poisoning.
• In 2004 a former president of the separatist Chechen republic, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, was killed by a car bomb in Qatar. Two Russian FSB agents were arrested and convicted of the crime in Qatar, but later released under strong diplomatic pressure from Russia.
• Also in 2004 pro-Western Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko was hospitalized with dioxin poisoning, which disfigured his face and nearly killed him.
• Ms. Politkovskaya had earlier accused Russian security services of trying to poison her during an airline flight in 2004.
Some experts suggest that Russia under Putin is not a monolithic power like the USSR. Many of the brutal incidents, they say, could be explained by factional battles or rogue operations within the Kremlin and its secret services.