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A window into Russia under Putin
What's behind Russian spy's poisoning?

December 8, 2006 | Page 2

LEE SUSTAR explains the background to the bizarre murder of a former Russian spy that grabbed international headlines.

THE POISONING death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko may or may not lead to criminal prosecutions, but it's already provided a window into the dynamics of Russian politics under President Vladimir Putin.

Whoever ordered the apparent murder of Litvinenko--and there's a long list of people with motives--it's clear that it has something to do with his association with Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire Russian businessman who lives in self-imposed exile in London.

As a charter member of the so-called "oligarchs"--bureaucrats turned businessmen in Russia's corrupt privatization schemes of the 1990s--Berezovsky was closely allied with the family of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who took power in 1991 following the collapse of the USSR.

Political connections allowed Berezovksy to expand his empire from a car dealership into media holdings and control of Aeroflot, the formerly state-controlled airline under the USSR.

Russia's financial crash of 1997-98 sent the Yeltsin regime into crisis. The notorious KGB--renamed the FSB--began to reassert itself politically to try to reverse Russia's political unraveling, which was reinforced by a catastrophic economic decline in the industrial sector.

Putin was standing by. A top KGB operative in the old East Germany in the 1980s, he acquired "democratic" credentials as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s. He became head of the FSB in 1998-99 and was installed into Yeltsin's administration, soon becoming prime minister.

His first act was to launch a war in Chechnya, the Muslim country that had fought Moscow to a standstill in its effort to secede from the Russian Federation after the breakup of the USSR. For Putin and the FSB, Chechnya was to be a demonstration war--a signal to the rest of the non-Russian peoples that independence wouldn't be tolerated--and a message to the U.S. that expansion of American influence into Russia's former empire would be contested.

When Yeltsin stepped down, Putin became acting president, and was elected in May 2000. By agreeing to elevate Putin, Yeltsin and his family avoided prosecution for the rampant corruption in his government.

For the rest of the oligarchs, however, the writing was on the wall. Putin and the FSB were out to roll back their influence and reassert the economic power of state.

Along with lesser-known elements of Russia's rich, Berezovsky fled to London, where he has periodically vowed to work to overthrow Putin. Litvinenko claimed he quit the FSB because he was ordered to assassinate Berezovsky.

In the meantime, Putin made an example of Mikhail Khodorkovsky--reportedly Russia's richest man, with a net worth of $15 billion--with an arrest in 2003 and conviction on corruption charges related to the Yukos oil company he controlled. Khodorkovsky--now serving a seven-year prison sentence--had tried to mount a political challenge to Putin's Kremlin.

But the drive of the Russian state to control the strategic energy sector was also a decisive factor. Gazprom, the state-controlled gas monopoly, is at the heart of an export-oriented behemoth that, along with Russia's control of oil reserves and pipelines, spurred a new wave of economic growth in Russia in recent years.

This also gave the Kremlin leverage to discipline former republics of the USSR, such as Ukraine and Georgia, by turning off lights and heat. And with the U.S. bogged down in Iraq, Putin is reasserting Russia's influence in Central Asia, pulling Uzbekistan away from the U.S. and back into Moscow's orbit, and seeking to do the same in Kyrgyzstan.

Moscow is also forging closer military ties to China, anchored politically by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which groups together allied Central Asian states, along with Iran, which has observer status. A more or less pro-Russian government now runs Ukraine, reversing the Washington-sponsored "Orange Revolution" of late 2004.

To cement his control at home, Putin has taken a hard right turn, embracing "anti-immigrant" racism against non-Russians espoused by growing neo-fascist organizations. The barbaric war in Chechnya continues, with its horrors mostly kept out of both the Russian and Western press. It was journalist Anna Politkovskaya's coverage of the war that is the likely reason for her murder earlier this year.

Whether or not Putin's government is directly responsible for the deaths of Politkovskaya or Litvinenko, both highlight the ominous turn toward repression in Russian politics.

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