Saturday, December 02, 2006

Irish Daily Mail piece

“Nyet faktov, tolko versii” [No facts, only theories] is a Russian saying that captures perfectly the difficulty of trying to fit the attempted murder of Yegor Gaidar, a former prime minister, together with the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko (a defector from Russia’s FSB security service) and the shooting of Anna Politkovskaya, a campaigning journalist.

They could hardly be more different. The other two were outspoken figures who already lived in fear of their lives. Mr Gaidar was widely respected in Moscow: at most a moderate critic, at least in public, of Vladimir Putin’s regime. Unlike most retired Russian politicians, he cared little for personal wealth: his energies were devoted to his free-market thinktank, where his rotund figure and beaming smile contrasted with his spartan office: undecorated, when I last visited, except for a pile of economic journals and a solitary holiday postcard.

Though he privately deplored the loss of political freedom in Russia in the past six years, Mr Gaidar was happiest discussing the arcane details of economic policy. Admittedly, many ordinary Russians loathed him, blaming his tough free-market policies in the early 1990s for the loss of their savings and the collapse of the Soviet-era economy. But few in the Kremlin would agree. Most rich and powerful Russians regard him as a hero, whose liberalisation of prices began Russia’s recovery from the planned economy.

What could someone like that—a cerebral, establishment figure—have in common with Mr Litvinenko, a shadowy ex-spook who publicly accused Mr Putin of paedophilia, and Ms Politkovskaya, a journalist whose incendiary articles regularly described the Russian president and his aides as war criminals?

The most terrifying explanation is that the Kremlin, or some other powerful faction in Russia, is systematically intimidating every kind of critic. Ms Politkovskaya because she was their best-known critic in the media, both at home and abroad. Mr Litvinenko because he was a defector. Mr Gaidar because his brainy liberal views undermine the Kremlin’s authoritarian and incompetent rule.

But it is puzzling that the poisoning was unsuccessful. Was this just a warning, or was it bungled?
Mr Gaidar, his daughter and his friends all say that they do not think Mr Putin’s Kremlin is behind the poisoning (if that is indeed what it was). British security officials are hedging their bets. They think that a “rogue element” of current and former FSB officers is at work.

If so, what do they want? Are they doing what they think Mr Putin will like? Are they trying to undermine him. Or perhaps to force his hand?

One of Mr Gaidar’s closest friends, Anatoly Chubais, now runs Russia’s giant electricity company, UES. He is publicly loyal to the Kremlin, but privately says he is increasingly worried that bad government is starving the country of investment. “It was a miracle that we kept the lights on last winter. And this winter will be even harder,” he confided recently to a visitor.

He believes that the murders “perfectly correspond to the interests and the vision of those people who are openly talking about a forceful, unconstitutional change of power in Russia.”

One possibility is that hardliners want to force Mr Putin from power, and replace him with someone more decisive and forceful, who will overtly rebuild the Soviet empire, rather than doing it behind the scenes as at the moment. But that seems unlikely. Mr Putin is the most popular politician in Russian history. It would be hard find anyone to replace him.

Alternatively, it could be an attempt by hardliners to force him into their camp. If relations with the West deteriorate sharply, then Russia’s only option will be to abandon any pretence of democracy and retreat into an alliance with rogue states such as Iran. But that hardly seems likely either. Russia has cultivated good relations with European countries such as France and Germany, in order to squeeze the countries inbetween such as Poland and the Baltic states. Why abandon that tactic when it is working so well?

The Kremlin’s own line is that the whole thing is got up by enemies of Russia, chiefly Boris Berezovsky, the London-based billionaire who was closely linked to Mr Litvinenko. Both men believe that the Kremlin blew up apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999 in order to blame them on Chechen terrorists, and create a public panic that would ease Mr Putin’s path to power.

One clue is that the Russian constitution says that Mr Putin has to stand down as Russian president in 2008. Inside its red walls, the Kremlin is abuzz with intrigue about how to manage this “problem”. One option is to change the constitution, to allow a third consecutive term. Another is to ignore it—by declaring a state of emergency—and third is to bypass it, by shifting Mr Putin to another job, and installing a figurehead as president. Somewhere in this maze of intrigue may lie the answer to the serial murders of Russia’s critics.

But the only thing that is really certain is that we do not know the truth. Russia’s security services are masters in the art of “maskirovka” [camouflage]. Whether the aim is to manipulate opinion in Russia or abroad, or to intimidate critics, or something else, enough false clues will be strewn that we are unlikely to see what is really going on until it is too late.

Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.


Fisk said...

While I know no more than any other
newspaper reader about who killed Mrs. P. and Mr. L., I can easily tell what killed them. No, not the bullet and poison.

Treason did. The kind which British used to punish in the way so aptly depicted in the movie "Braveheart". While the technology has certainly changed over 700 yrs., radioactive poison and "hanging, drawing, and quartering" have an uncanny similarity: a protracted, demeaning, and highly public suffering of the condemned.
That's because the human nature has changed not nearly as much as technology did, and treason remains treason yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

So here is a timely announcement from the last scene of Braveheart
(that, incidentally, took place just a few miles away from the
present University Royal Hospital):

"Behold the awful price of treason!"

La Russophobe said...

FISK: You really ought to try to express yourself a bit more clearly. One cannot tell who you think is guilty of treason, Anna Politkovskaya or the subhuman vermin which killed her. Please clarify, so I can compliment or excoriate you.

EDWARD: I don't think it matters whether the attack on Gaidar was a misfire or a warning to him. And the Kremlin probably sees it the same way. Either way, it serves its purpose, and if at first you don't succeed . . . Granted, if they have enough control to intentionally limit the effect of the poison that's impressive, and if they aren't even capable enough to kill when they mean to that's pathetic, but I don't think either conclusion should change our reaction. We need to exercise maximum effort to protect ourselves, as soon as possible.

Fisk said...

I said what I wanted to say, others are welcome to figure to the extent of their comprehension ability. I care for neither anyone's praise nor excoriation.

You personally have no reason for concern at all: anyone who has time and inclination to frequently post anonymous missives on blogs and forums (including myself) is nowhere near high enough on the totem pole to be worth taking out.

Penny said...

So are you saying Putin is channeling Edward I, or what?

La Russophobe isn't the only one trying to get a handle on your point?

Unknown said...

You'd have to be incredibly thick no to get fisk's point...

P.S. High Treason is the worst crime in most legal systems...

La Russophobe said...

ILDOOTCH: You'd have to be incredibly think to claim to know what the point is without stating it. And thicker still to engage in personal abuse, a real numbskull.

Unknown said...

Diaplay item 1: Глупость. Я бы даже сказал — Архиглупость © Ленин. ;-)

Penny said...

You'd have to be incredibly thick no to get fisk's point...

What are you, his mother? So what exactly is fisk's point? Does fisk even know?

By the way, one man's traitor is another man's dissenter. Perspective is everything. Too nuanced for you??

La Russophobe said...

ILDOOTCH: I take it that you can't state the point, either in English or in Russian. I'm not surprised. Or is that that "Глупость" is the point? From someone who names himself after a dictator, I wouldn't be a bit surprised. With "friends" like you Russia needs no enemies.