Monday, November 20, 2006

Whodunit?

An attempt has been made to kill Alexander Litvinenko One of Boris Berezovsky's allies in London. This piece from The Times gives a flavour of the man.

I occasionally meet refugees from the regime in Russia who have come out of the looking glass world of the secret services. Oleg Gordievsky, a highly successful agent- for the British, or Vasili Mitrohkin who brought much of the KGB archive into the public domain. I think Westerners often find the cloak and dagger brutality of the Soviet state very difficult to believe.

It is always a salutary experience reading the books of Viktor Suvorov , especially Aquarium, his personal history as a GRU- Soviet military intelligence- officer. The murderous brutality of the machine is made entirely plain. It is interesting to see how short people's memories are- the mysterious and very convenient death of Stephen Curtis of Bank Menatep in a helicopter accident seems to have been long forgotten.

Modern Russia is led by a former KGB officer. We did not allow a Gestapo officer to take power in Germany after the fall of the Nazi's. Yet the West, in the same way as it tolerates the iconography of Communism- Hammer and Sickle, Soviet jeans and all- still tolerates ex-Communists in a way that would be impossible about ex-Nazis.

The only difference between Soviet Socialism and National Socialism is that Soviet Socialism killed more people.

In modern Russia, the former KGB has splintered and many have gone freelance. The direct successor organisation, the FSB, retains many of the vile traditions of its depraved predecessor, but there are other groups who use the same methods for different ends.

The use of a relatively sophisticated poison as Thallium clearly indicates a post KGB link. The question is, which one? After all Mr. Litvinenko and his patron, Mr. Berezovsky, have many enemies. Is it the FSB determined to kill a traitorous former officer of the KGB? Is it pro-Moscow Chechens, allied but not controlled by, the Kremlin. Is it a more interesting game of bluff, trying to pin the blame on the Kremlin in order to discredit the Putin government?

Some commentators, such as Mary Dejevsky in The Independent, have seized on this last possibility and attempted to exonerate the Kremlin. However, this is to ignore the fundamental problem. The fact is that all of these possibilities could be true, and the reason why they could be true is because of the lawlessness at the very heart of the Russian State. FSB operatives do not act within the law, not even Russian law. The brutality of Leninism and Stalinism, which continued throughout the Cold War, has not been ended by the fall of the Soviet State. Whatever the precise origin of the plot to kill Alexander Litvinenko, the climate that has fostered the plot is the direct result of the Kremlin's failure to clean up government in the post-Soviet era, so for that alone Putin must take the responsibility- regardless of the immediate source of the poisonous Thallium.

Perhaps the bitterest irony of Putin's return to Authoritarianism- the use of violence, but also the reimposition of State power in key sectors of the Russian economy- is that it has failed so abjectly. The exclusion of foreigners from the Russian oil and gas sectors has left those sectors now unable to deliver the gas that they have already contracted to sell. Eliminating competition and the creation of behemoth national champions such as Rosneft in oil or Gazprom in gas will not improve the position of Russia one jot- it will merely concentrate power still further, reducing efficiency and increasing corruption.

Already the level and costs of corruption under Putin is higher than it was under Yeltsin.

Russia is to be feared- the savagery of its post-KGB leadership is as vile as ever. However we should perhaps fear Russian weakness even more. The drastic fall in the life expectancy of the Slavic Russians is a sharp contrast with the increase in the size of the North Caucasian nationalities. Although the population of Russia could fall below 100 million by 2040, the population of Chechens is growing, so their relative preponderance will increase -fast. This is not a recipe for stability in the key strategic area of the Caucasus region.

The failure of Gazprom or Rosneft to make the right investments will reduce their potential capacity at a time when Western Europe is increasing its dependence on Russian gas. The Russians will not be able to supply Western needs as the result of their failure to open up their energy industries. This is a problem as serious as the likely chance that Russia would use energy supplies as a political weapon against the Western European states, as it already has against Ukraine and other countries in the East.

Corruption will continue to increase as the result of the murders of those who challenge it- when even Politkovskaya is murdered, what are the chances for less internationally well-known figures?

Meanwhile the attempted murder of Litvinenko, who is a British citizen, in the British capital reminds us that the brutality of Russia, official and unofficial, is unabated. If we do not remind ourselves of this on a regular basis, we might not notice the effect of Russian money on ourselves: the question marks over Gerhard Schroders lucrative personal contracts with Russian oil and gas interests might give us pause for thought about our own leaders' relationship with Russia, at any level.

The stakes are high, the game is dangerous. We must renew our guard against those who would corrupt us, use energy supplies as a weapon or even kill us.

However we should continue to force Russia to face up to its responsibilities- the post Putin world is taking shape. There is still a chance to create a decentralised, pluralist Russia, a country that finds that competition makes it stronger, and not weaker. However it will take clear heads in the West. With Bush damaged, Blair and Chirac in their final months in office, it may fall to Angela Merkel to provide clear-eyed vision. However, she will struggle to overcome the fears of Russo-German collaboration that lie deep rooted in Central Europe. In the end it will be Britain that will have to engage- but if Blair can not, will Gordon Brown be able to?

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've long been disgusted in the way which people tolerate the symbols of sovietism and communism with pride.

The irony that all those Che Guevara t-shirts are made possible by the capitalist society isn't lost on me though.

Russia is dangerous, I wish more people would realise it. I've been reading two people warn of it, yourself and Edward Lucas of the Economist, most people are content to think that with the end of the cold war Russia is once again an ally. That is a dangerous situation to be in.

Anonymous said...

Russia is dangerous, it is a wounded bear. It feels cornered in so many ways. NATO enlarged to its borders, the various "colour" revolutions have toppled friendly regimes adjacent, China has become the symbol of "what Russia did wrong, what China did right" over economic restructuring, and the world still disrespecting Russia despite it being the source of energy.

Russia is wounded. There has been no reconciliation between "Russki" and "Rossiyski" -- both translated as "Russian" in English. They use the USSR for its convenience -- Yeltsin told Latvia that they can't blame Russia for the occupation because it was the USSR and not Russia that did it; but they try to employ its symbols for its own use.

Russian nationalism needs to develop in a healthier way. Instead of Lenin and Stalin, they should look at Tolstoy and Mendeleyev. Instead of Zhukov and Dzerdzinski, they need to look at Tchaikovsky and Pushkin. The state/Putin has been using the uglier symbols of nationalism (of both Russia and the USSR) for its own gains, and this is the danger.

Russia needs to reconcile with its own past and its identity before it is left a shell of its former self. And when the bear hits rock bottom, he would have no choice but to lash out. And we, at the Baltic coast, will be an early target...

rjdbham@aol.com said...

I agree with most of what you say -it is a scandal what the West turns a blind eye towards - interference in Moldova and Georgia, atrocities in Chechnya.

But I do find the equation of communism and Nazism a bit distracting. Yes - Stalin was as bad as Hitler. But as well as the thugs and opportunists, there were many communists who believed in principles of fraternity and equality. Please don't slander them.

There were communists who wanted "socialism with a human face", glasnost and perestroika in both the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Communists as well as anti-communists joined Solidarnosc.

Tim Newman said...

You might like to read my recent post on the exclusion of foreigners from the Russian energy market to the benefit of Gazprom and Rosneft.

And much as though I agree with a lot of your post, the fact remains that Putin is popular because times are probably better now in Russia than they have ever been in its history. I know a lot of Russians, and now you mention it, I'm married to one. All but a few think the last couple of years have seen vast improvements in Russian life, and most agree that times now are better than any time before.

RK said...

I agree that Russia is a dangerous country that we should we wary of. Not sure there is much the UK or the EU can do to positively influence it however. The positions of Blair and others trying to put friendly pressure on Russia was undermined by the old style alliance building of Chirac and Schroeder. Anything more muscular than that would be ineffective and counter productive. The west ‘tolerates’ Russian activity in Georgia, Chechnya and Moldova the same way it ‘tolerates’ Chinas position over Darfur, it’s occupation of Tibet, it’s religious oppression and it’s treatment of the Uighars. In other words of course we disapprove but short of starting a war there is very little that can be done other than ineffective diplomacy. Claims that the west ‘turns a blind eye’ are hopelessly na├»ve. Governments can (and often do) make all the robust statements they like, it will not influence Russia or China one bit. Sanctions? Not against one of the P5. So we make the diplomatic protests and leave it at that. It’s not turning a blind eye it’s accepting the reality of the world we live in. In the face of this problem the most positive policy we can adopt is the process of broadening NATO and the EU. Bringing countries like the Baltic States into our clubs and giving them access to our markets has a chance of removing them from the malignant influence of Russia.

A couple of asides.

The allies were in a position to dictate to Germany and so there was of course a process of de-Nazification. The collapse of the USSR into Russia and the CIS was an internal process and the west has no power to tell Russia who to elect (in the broadest sense of the word) as their leaders. Acceptance of a leader’s legitimacy is a basic principle of the international order. We may not like Putin or his KGB past but we cannot refuse to recognise him in a diplomatic sense as the leader of Russia.

Schroders acceptance of a lucrative Russian gas job after a chancellorship of close ties with the Kremlin is at best bad timing and at worst blatant corruption but I dislike the inference that because the German chancellor is accepting tainted money then so must UK politicians. It’s no wonder politicans in this country have such a low reputation when corruption in another country is seen as evidence of wrong-doing in this one. I’m sure that wasn’t your intention and you were merely advocating vigilence and awareness but I thought it did read a little that way.

Cicero said...

rk- I accept that Schroder is a more egregious example of what looks, prima facie, like corruption. While I am not convinced that Mr. Blair's association with the Tchenguiz brothers bears a close inspection, I accept that the evidence of Russian money becoming involved in British politics does not seem to be there- unless you count tickets for Stamford Bridge.

Yes, Russia lost the Cold War- but not by enough- hence the uncomfortable parrallels with Weimar Germany.

rjbham- Sorry, but the Road to Hell is paved with good intentions-the death toll is just too high (and not just in the USSR, but China, Cambodia etc etc) to ignore the nature of Communism. Many victims of the purges were convinced Communists, but the fact is that the brutality was because of Communism, not despite it. The fact that Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria died too, does not take away their complicity in the crime. Dubcek and many Poles cesed to be Communists- they left (or were thrown out of) the Party.

anonymous- It was a pleasure seeing the RAF patroling the Eastern border of NATO last month- I am sure that the fact that they broke the sound barrier and rattled the windows in Pskov (Paskavas/Pihkva) was just an accident.

tim newman- In a climate of fear, how many would speak out against the regime?

Tristan- As you know, Edward and I rarely disagree.

rk said...

Yes we're more 1934 than 1946 when it comes to Russian parallels with Germany. Slightly worrying when put that way.

rjdbham@aol.com said...

I didn't have in mind Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria as democratic socialists.

I was thinking of Dubcek, Gorbachev, Jacek Kuron, Petr Uhl, etc.

You should put away your tarring brush.

Isn't it interesting that the ex-communists and the ex-dissidents in Hungary have more in common than the conservatives? Similarly the ex-Solidarnosc activists in Labour Union have at times been allied to ex-communists?

Isn't there a vast difference between the ex-communists in Serbia who flirted with fascism and the ex-communists in Bosnia who evolved into multi-ethnic social democrats?

Tim Newman said...

In a climate of fear, how many would speak out against the regime?

For the man on the street, there is no climate of fear against speaking out against the regime. Ordinary Russians now are as free to criticise the state of affairs in the country as the people of England.

However, if anybody wants to form a political party or start a radio station or become a hard-hitting journalist, then look out: you will certainly run into serious problems. But for the ordinary people, they are free to say what they like, and indeed they do.

In short, when Russians tell me things are better now than ever before, they are not simply parroting a Soviet-style party line to avoid persecution.

Cicero said...

Yes Tim, but isn't that the point- you can say what you like unless it might actually make a difference. I agree that things are better now than they were, but they are still pretty bad. The government is not Stalin or Brezhnev, but it still a nasty, authoritarian and occasionally brutal regime.

Cicero said...

rjdbham- I think the point is ex- Communist, not Communist. Kuron was expelled from the party, so was Dubcek. A demcratic Socialist, practically by definition , is not a Communist.

In Poland the Unia Pracy is a left wing party, as is the SLD, but all of the other post-Solidarnosc groups still find it hard to forgive. Jan-Krzystof Bielicki used to apologise for his English but, as he said rather pointedly: "Unlike Kwasniewski, I was never allowed to go abroad to practise English".

People are still, understandably, bitter- especially since the Russians still refuse to acknowledge the crimes of the Soviet Union committed, for example, against Latvia.