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Friday, July 18, 2008

The FSB Blues

Yulia Latynina, writing in the Moscow Times:

Things have not been going so well for our siloviki. The BBC ran an interview on July 7 with an anonymous high-ranking agent of Britain's MI5 counterespionage unit who declared that Russian authorities were behind the poisoning death in London of former Federal Secret Service agent Alexander Litvinenko.

The declaration will probably lead to a new wave of angry recriminations against foreigners, and many will be asking why this unidentified MI5 agent made these accusations during a popular BBC program. But the answer to that question is simple, albeit unpleasant, for the Kremlin: to support and defend the rule of law. In normal countries, people are not usually poisoned with polonium-210 in the heart of a major world capital, with the murderers walking away scot-free.

In another case, British spymaster Alex Allen, who is also chairman of the country's Joint Intelligence Committee, was found in a coma in his London apartment two weeks ago. British newspapers speculated that al-Qaida or the Russian secret service might be responsible for his condition.

To be honest, I don't think Russian agents could have pulled off such a major feat. They are limited to more modest and blunt operations, like blowing up a bus in Nalchik or a market in Sukhumi. But Alex Allen? Don't make me laugh. This is nonsense. An agency more accustomed to shooting down unarmed people in Nazran and then photographing the bodies with planted weapons in their hands is hardly qualified to orchestrate a sophisticated operation against an ace agent like Allen.

At the same time as these events were unfolding, the London court agreed to hear the claims of businessman Michael Cherney against oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Cherney accused Deripaska, his former business partner, of failing to pay the full price for his shares in Russian Aluminum.

I don't want to guess the outcome, but I think Cherney's claims aren't worth the paper they were written on. Cherney's industrial empire, in which Deripaska once participated, was built upon extremely informal connections between the various players. The ownership documents Cherney has in his possession, and which both he and Deripaska have signed, are quite typical for such shady transactions -- that is, they might carry some validity in the criminal world, but not in a British court of law. Nonetheless, the British court agreed to hear Cherney's case on the rationale that he was unable to obtain justice in Russia. It is truly a sad testament to the current state of affairs when a London court considers Russia's reputation as being worse than Cherney's.

They say that it takes the first half of your life to build your reputation, but during the second half, your reputation then works for you -- or against you, as the case may be. Cesare Borgia, the 15th-century Italian military commander, probably did not sleep with his sister, as has been claimed. He just sent killers to knock off her husband, and when they failed in the first attempt, Borgia ordered them to go back and try again. The second time, however, they finished off the wounded man in his bedroom, in front of Borgia's sister. Objectively speaking, Borgia was an excellent commander and a brilliant statesman, and it is unlikely that he was responsible for half of the killings attributed to him. Nonetheless, he has been stuck with a largely negative reputation.

Before Litvinenko's poisoning death, Russia had one reputation, but now it has a different one. That new reputation won't change until the murder case is investigated and brought to its full conclusion -- and until murder suspect and State Duma Deputy Andrei Lugovoi gives an honest deposition instead of giving self-promoting news conferences and television interviews.

In democracies, there are certain things that should never be bargained away or swept under the carpet. Murder is one of them.

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