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Timing Couldn't Be Worse for Putin

The poisoning death of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko threatens to damage further the Kremlin's reputation in the West regardless of who masterminded it and why it was carried out.

The timing couldn't have been worse for President Vladimir Putin.

Litvinenko, who on his London deathbed accused the president of poisoning him, died just hours before Putin met Friday with European leaders in Helsinki for an annual European Union-Russia summit. Putin also faced uncomfortable questions during his last meeting with European leaders at an informal EU summit on Oct. 9, just two days after journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of Putin, was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building.

"The excessive number of coincidences between the deaths of people opposed to the Russian authorities and major international events involving Vladimir Putin is a source of concern," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin's aide for EU relations, said in Helsinki.

"I am hardly someone who believes in conspiracy theories, but in this case I think that we are witnessing a well-rehearsed plan to discredit Russia and its leader," he said.

The Kremlin, which is seeking to establish a strategic partnership with the EU, needs to be accepted by its European partners more than ever as relations have cooled with the United States, analysts said.

"Coupled together, these deaths will intensify criticism of the Kremlin abroad," said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies.

Litvinenko's death will strain British ties, already frosty over refusals by British courts to extradite one-time Kremlin powerbroker Boris Berezovsky and Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev to face terrorism and other charges at home. Berezovsky and Zakayev were friends of Litvinenko. Before Litvinenko sought asylum in Britain in 2000, he had publicly accused his superiors of ordering him to kill Berezovsky.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the deaths of Litvinenko and Politkovskaya, and in both instances it has pointed an accusatory finger at Berezovsky.

Without a smoking gun in either case, the amount of damage that will be inflicted on the Kremlin will be determined largely by how the poisoning plays out in the Western media, which is now offering the most critical coverage that Putin has faced during his six-year presidency. Britain's Sunday Times had eight articles alone, including a 4,300-word investigative piece that raised claims by Litvinenko that a video exists of Putin "caught in a compromising sexual assignation."

Western media have made very few references to the ties between Litvinenko and Berezovsky, said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst. He said Berezovsky was playing his "PR cards perfectly," noting that the businessman's suggestion that the Kremlin might be behind the poisoning was receiving prominent coverage in the Western media.

While Western media reports have been filled with speculation about a Kremlin connection, Russian state media have highlighted speculation that Berezovsky was behind the poisoning.

"Theories about the former FSB colonel's death are in one way or another linked with Berezovsky," Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported. The government newspaper speculated that Berezovsky "masked the crime to bring suspicion on the FSB" or that Berezovsky's associates killed Litvinenko as a warning to the businessman in a commercial dispute. It described Litvinenko as violent and unintelligent, and said he "made his choice and drank his poison ... when he betrayed those he worked for."

Television channels had few reports about Litvinenko's death.

State Duma Deputy Valery Dyatlenko insisted on Channel One television on Friday that the state had no reason to kill him. "The death of Litvinenko -- for Russia, for the security services -- means nothing," said Dyatlenko, a former FSB officer. "I think this is another game of some kind by Berezovsky."

"Possibly, there was a conflict," Nikolai Kovalyov, a fellow deputy and former FSB director, said on the same channel. "In untying this knot called the relationship between Berezovsky and Litvinenko, it was necessary to derive the maximum benefit -- and the benefit here for Boris Abramovich [Berezovsky] is ... the accusation of Russia's involvement in the killing."

In an interview, Gennady Gudkov, a member of the Duma's Security Committee and an FSB colonel, said he believed Berezovsky or his entourage was involved in the poisoning.

Other former intelligence officers, including Oleg Kalugin, "are alive and well," even though they knew more classified information than Litvinenko, Gudkov said.

"There was probably some internal strife" in Berezovsky's inner circle, Gudkov said, stressing that this was his personal opinion.

Analysts agreed that the Kremlin had little motive to kill Litvinenko, since the fallout from his death promises to prove more damaging than any of Litvinenko's criticism or even his private investigations into Politkovskaya's death and Russia's 1999 apartment bombings.

"Litvinenko wrote a book accusing the FSB of blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999, but the media attention in the West cannot be compared to that drawn by his death," Markov said.

Negative coverage in the British media "is more of a symptom than a cause of worsening relations" with Russia, said Mark Galeotti, director of the Organised Russian & Eurasian Crime unit at Britain's Keele University.

"There is a rising attitude of suspicion about Russia," he said.

Earlier this year, the FSB accused British diplomats of passing secret messages via specially equipped rocks. The Kremlin also is fuming that British courts have granted asylum to Berezovsky and Zakayev.

Galeotti predicted that Litvinenko's death would not have a long-lasting effect on Russian-British relations unless strong evidence emerged of the Kremlin's involvement.


(The Moscow Times 27.xi.06)

 
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