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Of Politics and Poison


The investigation surrounding the mysterious poisoning death by radioactive polonium-210 of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko is straining Russian-British relations. The former KGB officer, who was an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had accused Mr. Putin of ordering his assassination, according to a statement that Mr. Litvinenko’s family and friends said he dictated on his deathbed.

However, Igor Zevelev, Washington bureau chief of Novosti, the Russian News and Information Agency, questions this allegation. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Zevelev says the Kremlin doubts the authenticity of Mr. Litvinenko’s deathbed letter. He notes that it was written in eloquent English, even though Mr. Litvenenko did not speak good English and “ nobody has seen the original letter in Russian.”

Mr. Zevelev says other theories have been advanced to explain the poisoning, such as “exiled oligarchs, Chechen terrorists, or some rogue elements within the Russian governmental structure.” However, critics of the Kremlin are skeptical of those theories and note that in just the past two months, well-known investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered and former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar unexpectedly fell ill during a visit to Ireland.

Masha Lipman notes that all the victims were fierce critics of the Kremlin, especially of President Putin. Ms. Lipman says – whether or not there is a pattern in the rash of assassinations and contract murders – Mr. Litvinenko’s case “stands apart.” A former KGB officer, he had turned against his country and sought refuge in Britain, she notes, and he was killed by a “rare radioactive agent.”

This week Russian prosecutors opened a criminal case in the poisoning death of Mr. Litvinenko as well as the attempted murder of his business associate, Dimitri Kovtun, who was exposed to the same radioactive substance and is reported to be suddenly and seriously sick. They say the two men met in London on November 1st, the day Litvinenko fell seriously ill. Furthermore, a third man who was also part of the London meeting, Andrei Lugovoi, has been undergoing tests in a Moscow hospital. Members of the British police are now in Moscow carrying out their own investigation but, under rules imposed by the Russian prosecutors, the British have not been able to interview any witnesses directly.

Douglas Fraser, political editor of The Herald in Edinburgh, says the events of recent days have “forced some reappraisal” of how Britons look at Russians. And that follows a serious concern about Europe’s growing dependence on Russian energy supplies and the “ruthlessness” with which Russia exercises its power over its neighbors. Mr. Fraser says opposition politicians are arguing that Britain should have been “much slower to embrace Vladimir Putin.”

Meanwhile U.S. lawmakers are urging the Bush administration to take a harder line in its relations with the Kremlin. And Senator Joseph Biden, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he believes President Putin is leading his country “down the road to oligarchy.”

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.