Echoes of Trotsky

“You have shown yourself unworthy of the trust of civilized men and women.” These are the words with which murdered former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko accused Russian president Vladimir Putin in a letter dictated on his deathbed. “You succeeded in silencing one man but the whole of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.”

Like the murder of Litvinenko’s friend, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the poison murder of the former agent is unlikely to be solved any time soon. Though the Russian authorities, which probably hold the key to the mystery, have declared their cooperation with the British police, they also emphasized that only they will be able to interrogate any suspects on Russian soil, or make arrests. They categorically stated that no suspects will be extradited to Britain, where the murder took place and of which Litvinenko had become a citizen. The only place any Russian suspects could be tried, according to the Russians, is in Russia. Already there are signs that the Russian authorities are not fully cooperating with British law enforcement, for example by refusing to question some parties the British were interested in talking to.

Putin denied any involvement in the two murders. That was to be expected, whether it was the truth or not.

Disingenuously Putin suggested, Politkovskaya’s death could have been the work of his political opponents in next-door Ukraine, to smear his name. The suggestion is somewhat ironic. Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko himself fell seriously ill after being poisoned with hard-to-detect but highly toxic dioxin by pro-Russian members of the Ukrainian security forces. If Litvinenko and Politkovskaya were indeed killed on behalf of Putin’s enemies, one would expect Russian authorities to be most keen and cooperative to track down their murderers. Yet so far there is no indication of that.

The nature of the poison used against Litvinenko, Polonium-210, makes anything but a state-sponsored assassination attempt unlikely. It is sold by commercial suppliers only in tiny quantities and the dose used would have cost $10 million. Arguably the question is not if Litvinenko was poisoned by current or former members of a state secret service, but whether Putin authorized the murder or not.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks against the USA Putin won praise as an ally in the so-called “War on Terror”. He let the US use airbases in former Soviet republics in Central Asia during the war against the Afghan Taliban regime. He maintains personal friendships with George W. Bush, former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and former Italian premier Berlusconi.

His political friends in the West and also largely the Western media chose to turn a blind eye to Russian atrocities and massive human rights violations in Chechnya. Torture, arbitrary detention and “disappearances” (extrajudicial killings) are widespread. Russian forces act with total impunity. They literally get away with murder. A report by Human Rights Watch wrote in 2004:

Unchecked patterns of abuse by Russia’s forces in Chechnya will eventually affect the rest of Russian society. Tens of thousands of police and security forces have done tours of duty in Chechnya, after which they return to their home regions, bringing with them learned patterns of brutality and impunity. Several Russian human rights groups have begun to note a “Chechen syndrome” among police who served in Chechnya—a particular pattern of physical abuse and other dehumanizing treatment of people in custody. Russians already face serious risk of torture in police custody. The Chechnya experience is thus undermining efforts to promote the rule of law in Russia’s criminal justice system.

Putin ascended to power on the promise of a quick victory in Chechnya, yet despite of (or perhaps because of) ruthless methods Chechens still resist Russian occupation six years later. If anything can be learned from this period it is that Putin has few scruples, as long as he can get away with it. When the Chechen conflict erupted into a war again as Putin rose to power, Russia was gripped by fear from a series of unsolved bombings of apartment blocks which were blamed on Chechens, even though later security forces were caught red handed with explosives in the basement of one building. Anna Politkovskaya was investigating these bombings.

The murder of Litvinenko made a lot more headlines than that of Politkovskaya, not just because of the unusual choice of method but also because it took place in a Western country.

Probably the most famous of all foreign murders of an enemy of a Russian leader was that of Leon Trotsky. Exiled in 1929, the revolutionary and writer continued his opposition to Stalin, denouncing his policies in numerous books and articles. Finally in August 1940 he was slain by Ramon Mercader, an agent of the NKVD (the precursor of the KGB), at his home in Mexico City using an ice axe. His murderer, a Spanish citizen who used a fake Canadian passport and name, was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Stalin denied any involvement. Mercader’s real identity was not discovered until 1953. Upon his release from prison in 1960 he left Mexico and went to revolutionary Cuba. Until his death in Havana in 1978 he lived in Cuba and the USSR, where he was honoured as a “Hero of the Soviet Union”. His involvement with the KGB was not officially revealed until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

While it took over half a century until written proof became available, Mercader’s hero status in the Soviet block from after his prison release had already made clear that Mercader had murdered Trotsky on Stalin’s orders.

In a similar vain, it may take a long time before all facts about Litvinenko, Politkovskaya and Putin get documented, a lack of cooperation from the Russian authorities will make it clear whose interests were served through these unscrupulous murders.

In February 2004 exiled former Chechen president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was killed by a car bomb explosion in Qatar. His killers, Russian agents Anatoly Belaskhov and Vasily Bogachev were sentenced to life in prison by a court but later transferred to Russia, which had put intense pressure on the small Gulf state while denying any involvement in the crime. At home the murderers were soon released from prison. In the summer of 2006 the Russian parliament passed a law that explicitly permits foreign assassinations if signed off by the Russian president.

It would be far easier to believe in Putin’s protestations of his innocence if it wasn’t for the track record of his regime in the past 6 years. Whether Putin gave direct orders or failed to supervise his security forces, it is he as the commander in chief who bears the responsibility for these deaths, as he does for the suffering and deaths of numerous others in Chechnya and other parts of the Russian sphere of influence. Those who still treat his rogue regime as a valuable friend and ally must share this grave responsibility.