A couple of weeks ago Britain held its annual award ceremony honoring services to the Crown. The choice of honorees for this year (selected by departing Prime Minister Blair) could not be more stark. Among the recepients of the award (a Companionship of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George) was Oleg Gordievsky, the highest-level KGB defector to England, who's been living there since 1985. The British government had more than 20 years to bestow Gordievsky with this highest award. But it pointedly waited until this year - when relations with Russia have sunk to new post-Cold War lows - to give it to him.
Another recipient was the Judge Timothy Workmen, a man who was mostly unknown until he presided over the asylum cases of the two most famous Russian exiles in London - Berezovsky and Zakayev - ruling against their extradition to Russia and giving them asylum in Britain.
We've seen this racket before: If you're a Russian and you fall out with your business partners, or your book is selling poorly, just throw in some random scare-accusations against "the regime," and voila! Suddenly you're not a small-time (or big-time) crook, or a an obscure struggling writer, but rather a famous, heroic dissident, persecuted by the savage Russian secret police, which is trying to quash the flames of freedom.
In fact this brings a certain sense of closure. Relations between Russia and England (and the U.S.) are bad now, and growing worse. If the Litvinenko affair was meant to spoil relations, it succeded.
It seems extremely unlikely that Putin wanted this. Last September he was on the top of the world, having presided over the G8 summit at St. Petersburg, which went without a hitch, despite the media's attempts to paint it as darkly as possible. It seemed far more successful and smooth, in fact, than the most recent G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, a non-stop embarrassment-fest. The German police clubbed and gassed anti-globalization protesters in view of the cameras and the food wound up poisoning several dozen dignitaries (including George W. Bush), as well as aides and journalists. George Bush missed half of the meeting as a result. And when he wasn't puking and shitting in his hotel room, he managed a few hilarious photo-ops: he was filmed apparently flirting and winking at the host, Angela Merkel, wearing his signature idiotic smirk, while Pootie-Put on her other side was charming the newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was captured flashing stupid grimaces of his own.
But first let's go back again to last autumn, when everything seemed to be going so smoothly for Putin's government. Suddenly, events took a turn. Big-time serial political killings returned for the first time since the Yeltsin days. It started with the assassination of Andrei Kozlov, the deputy head of the Central Bank, on September 14. Then, on October 7, Putin's own birthday, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed at the door of her apartment building. And in early November, the Litvinenko story exploded. The last two events occurred just before big meetings between Putin and top EU officials in Finland. As a result, instead of an important trade deal being worked out with the EU, all the talk was about these shocking killings, with everyone pointing accusing fingers at Putin. The Russia-EU talks came to nothing. It's impossible to believe Putin wanted things to turn this way. And yet it seems that Putin government itself isn't exactly rushing out to find the killers.
Half a year has passed since I wrote the article "Toxic Avenger?" on the Litvinenko affair (The eXile #252). And yet it is not any clearer today what happened in London in late October 2006, or why.
On May 21 of this year British prosecutors charged Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko by poisoning him with an extremely rare and highly radioactive isotope, polonium-210.