Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian agent killed with polonium in London, believed that Vladimir Putin lacked the mettle to stamp out corruption inside Russia's security agency and that he had links to organized crime, his widow said Monday.
Giving evidence to a public inquiry at London's High Court into the former spy's death, Marina Litvinenko said her husband had taken his concerns in 1998 to Putin, who then headed the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
Marina Litvinenko said that Putin – who would become Russia’s acting president on December 31, 1999 – had taken no action to curb the problems and that shortly after raising his concerns, Litvinenko himself, known to his family as Sasha, had come under investigation.
Putin’s experience questioned
"Sasha said it was not a productive meeting at all … he didn't believe he [Putin] could make any change," she said.
Litvinenko, who served in the KGB and then the FSB unit dealing with organized crime, doubted Putin's ability because he had become FSB director without doing work "on the ground," added the 52-year-old widow.
Litvinenko died in 2006 after drinking tea poisoned with rare radioactive isotope polonium-210, which British police believe he was given by two Russians he’d met there.
The main suspects, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, deny involvement. Russia has refused to extradite them to face trial.
The inquiry, which opened last week, has also heard that Litvinenko had told police that Putin, who served as a KGB spy in East Germany, ordered his killing. The Kremlin has repeatedly dismissed the accusation as nonsense.
According to his widow, Litvinenko had suspected Putin of links to the criminal gangs that mushroomed as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Putin became deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in 1994. “Sasha believed he was involved in some crime connections,” said Marina, who said Russia's second city was the crime capital of Russia at that time.
Leaked cables show U.S. diplomats viewed Putin a leader who allowed crooked spies and corrupt officials to siphon off cash from Russia, the world's biggest energy producer. The Kremlin has dismissed the claims.
Marina Litvinenko told the inquiry her husband had first begun to have doubts about FSB actions during the war against Chechen separatists in 1994.
By 1998, he was working for a secret unit of the agency known as URPO, which investigated organized economic crime, and had reached the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
Litvinenko reportedly disillusioned
But he became disillusioned over some of its illegal activities and the suggestion that he should kill oligarch Boris Berezovsky, whom he had got to know in 1994 while investigating an assassination attempt.
With Berezovsky’s assistance, he made a complaint about the activities of URPO and arranged for the 1998 meeting with Putin shortly after he had taken over as FSB director.
In late 1998, Litvinenko fronted a news conference Berezovsky had organized with a number of other FSB agents, some masked, to denounce corruption in the agency.
“It was an extraordinary event,” Marina said.
In 1999, Litvinenko was charged and cleared of assaulting a suspect two years earlier but immediately re-arrested and accused of theft. This case was dropped but he faced further allegations in early 2000 shortly before he fled Russia.
The open hearings run until late March. A report is due by the end of this year.