Monday, November 20, 2006

The KGB is back

There is little doubt that following the glory days of the Gorbachev/Yeltsin era of freedom, Russia has been slip sliding towards what can best be described as corporatist fascism. It is freer than the days of the USSR, but political opposition in Russia is low key and nascent, and there is good reason. If you start asking serious questions your life is in danger.
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Alexander Litvinenko, a critic of the Putin regime, is in a London hospital after an apparent deliberate poisoning over the weekend, involving Thallium. Thallium compounds are used in rat poison and only tiny amounts are needed to kill. It is unclear whether the poison was ingested or pass through Litvinenko’s skin, but the message is clear – someone was out to kill him and it is not hard to figure out why.
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Litvinenko moved to Britain six years ago and recently gained citizenship. He went to meet a journalist who claimed to have information about the death of another Russian journalist – Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya, who was found shot in the head four times on 7 October. Politkovskaya has been writing an article on the use of torture by authorities in Chechnya, a specialist subject of hers.
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The Novaya Gazeta is the paper she worked for, and it is now owned 49% by Mikhail Gorbachev, who is known to be concerned for civil liberties in Russia.
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The attempted killing of Litvinenko harks back to the bad old days of KGB contract killings in third countries. This was not a monopoly of the KGB, the secret services of other Soviet block regimes also engaged in this activity, North Korea still does. I need not remind intelligent readers of the famous Bulgarian umbrella trick.
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Putin is clearly running a kleptocracy that is subject to little challenge or discipline. He can continue to do so as long as Russia reaps the rewards of high energy commodity prices, and Putin surrounds himself with people who make a killing out of something that they did next to nothing to create. Russians like a strong man who is sober, and Putin has been unafraid to assert himself in the world. However, it is clear that with the strong man comes few opportunities to challenge his power and authority. The assassination of Politkovskaya and attempted assassination of Litvinenko are only the tip of the iceberg. The tragedy will be for Russia to slip further down the path of fascism.

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