THE POISONING in London of the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko confirms what we already know: that it is dangerous to criticise the Kremlin. It comes less than a month after the shooting in Moscow of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who tirelessly exposed Russian atrocities in Chechnya. Paul Klebnikov, another crusading journalist, was shot dead in 2004.
Dozens of other critical journalists have lost their lives or their jobs since Vladmir Putin came to power. And not just journalists: Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin in 2004 when he ran against a Kremlin-backed opponent in the Ukrainian presidential election. Pesticides compete with guns and less lethal means to silence opposition.
Who orders, plots and carries out these crimes? No one knows, and clearly few prosecutors would be interested in bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Murders and attempted murders, though, are only the tip of the iceberg. President Putin set out to re-create the state authority that he (and most Russians) felt had been weakened fatally in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin. This has meant suppressing or neutralising the media, NGOs and opposition parties (most political parties are creatures of the Kremlin) and resuming control over privatised strategic industries, as well as an increasingly truculent foreign policy, fuelled by State-encouraged xenophobia — of which the harassing of “illegal” Georgian immigrants is only the latest example. The mixture, while ominous in Western eyes, has been popular in Russia, with Putin consistently enjoying 70 per cent personal approval ratings.
This is not, however, a return to communism. Putin’s background, and power base, is the KGB — and the KGB was the first to abandon Communism when it started to fail as a power system. His programme is to make Russia great in the world again by playing on themes that have a strong historical resonance: the demand for order, admiration for strong rulers, Russian Orthodoxy as an expression of Russian identity and a recurrent fear of “westernisation”.
The second misconception is that we are dealing with a monolithic, strong State. Russia does not have a government; it has a prince, and a court riven by factions trying to win access to the resources they crave. For all the “power” he has engrossed, Putin cannot impose coherence on his squabbling entourage, which is why Russia remains badly governed. It is also why he is unlikely to have had anything to do with the unsolved crimes. These have almost certainly been initiated lower down the structure — but it was enough for their perpetrators to know that the prince would not mind.