Nick Paton-Walsh on the Litvinenko affair

It sounded familiarly far-fetched when I first heard about it. Alexander Litvinenko, for all the dynamic fervour with which he took on the Putin administration from afar, was often the source of very excited claims about the Kremlin’s alleged misdemeanours.

After four years in Moscow [for The Guardian] you learn to be very careful about claims made by opponents of the Kremlin. It’s not because you’re worried the Kremlin will take away your accreditation (they only did that if you interviewed the late Beslan mastermind Shamil Basayev), but because you risk adding the fuel of credibility to someone else’s political agenda. And getting it spectacularly wrong.

A political agenda was pretty clear to see in the days after The Sunday Times broke the story that Alexander Litvinenko had been poisoned. Pretty soon afterwards, the allegation surfaced that the FSB – the KGB’s successors – had dunnit. As is often the case with Russia’s fractured and hamstrung opposition, the claim was made before the evidence was ready. The media were left to fill the gap between the two themselves.

All that Sunday, 24-hour news channels brimmed with experts offering speculation on a news story that far exceeded the wildest limits of the imagination. It’s gone on for weeks. I recall one moment when one channel ran John Reid saying that the investigation had been upgraded from an unexplained death to a suspicious poisoning, and then ran the headline “the radioactive murder”, as if to prove a point about who was really running the investigation.

It took a few days before news editors realised the full CVs of people they were routinely putting on air – that Alex Goldfarb, for instance, is both Litvinenko’s friend but also an employee of Boris Berezovsky, a London-based oligarch who really hates Vladimir Putin. By this stage, the finger was firmly pointed at the Kremlin. This appears to remain the default position regardless of what other suspects hove into view. I personally can’t follow the logic of why Andrei Lugovoi – the businessman whom Litvinenko met for tea on the day he fell ill and a man frequently referred to in the media as something more than a witness – could have anything to do with the poisoning. Imagine you’re a multi-millionaire who enjoys weekends in London, with plenty of experience in the Russian security services, and knowledge of their competitors’ capabilities. Would you really get Polonium 210 all over your hands as you administered the poison personally to a former FSB agent with political asylum in another country? Would you then go on TV several times to talk about your meeting and agree to meet British detectives? Has anyone yet to suggest why he might even want to harm Litvinenko at all?

Logic has been lost in the rush to accuse. We seem to think that the KGB – who pretty much kept us on our toes for 40 Cold War years – are completely incompetent idiots who’d risk a diplomatic scandal through a clumsy, easily solved assassination using a rarely tested radioactive substance on foreign territory.

I don’t have a problem with people laying into the Putin administration. They have done some pretty revolting things in their six years. But the key challenge is to tackle them on things that you can gather evidence about – human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, or punitive legislation against non-governmental organisations, or even why so many journalists are dying in Russia, regardless of who’s ordering their deaths?

After the Litvinenko affair, the Kremlin is going to have a much easier job dismissing any future disclosures about their misconduct as piffle from the same press corps that ran all that nonsense about “how Mr Putin ordered Litvinenko poisoned”. The reputation of western democratic institutions – including the media – is sufficiently damaged already in Russia after the fiasco of the Iraq war and the lead-up to it. As Grigori Yavlinski – a long-term opponent of the Kremlin – once said to me: “The best thing you in the West can do to help democracy in Russia is to get your own house in order.”

I’m left wondering what good this whole episode and its messy speculation have done the cause of reform in Russia, the very thing that Litvinenko claimed he was campaigning – and dying – for.

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