December 21, 2006

December 21, 2006 | Commentary on

Russia goes backward

The British are so squeamish. They are having the vapors just because Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London with $10 million worth of polonium-210, a highly radioactive agent applied to the victim in something like 10 times the necessary dosage for lethality. According to the Moscow media, the Brits should just grow up. Russia's three main national networks last week led their main news broadcasts with stories about "Britain on the brink of panic."

In fact, the Russia government is so disgusted by the "overreaction" of the international media to the affair that it is reportedly considering libel action. According to a report on Friday on the Web site of Russia Today TV, Russia's Federal Agency for the Press and Mass Media is collecting publications worldwide covering the case. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has stated that the Western coverage of the case reminds him of nothing so much as Cold War propaganda.

From beyond the grave, after dying a slow and agonizing death from radiation poisoning in a British hospital on Nov. 23, Mr. Litvinenko through a friend accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of orchestrating his murder. His death, he said "will reverberate Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life." Before falling ill, he had stated that he had previously been ordered by the FSB to kill Boris Berezovsky and also in an interview with Voice of America accused Mr. Putin of ordering the death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya to silence her and to intimidate other journalists.

Not long after Mr. Litvinenko was taken ill, a much more famous Russian, former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, was taken mysteriously ill during a visit to Ireland, reinforcing the impression that something sinister is definitely afoot. And the fact is that radioactive material in the quantities used on Mr. Litvinenko is not readily available; it so happens, though, that the deadly isotope is produced in Russia.

The Russian government counters that Mr. Litvinenko was not even a spy, but a former secret service prison guard who was fired from the job when Mr. Putin was the head of the service and Mr. Ivanov his deputy, someone of little consequence. Why kill someone so inconsequential? Possibly because deterrence is as good a strategy as any to silence large groups of people.

The Russian government does not like it, but it is clear why suspicion falls where it does, even if there is no clear evidence yet of who murdered Mr. Litvinenko. Because the Putin government, despite allegedly favoring the free media, has made serious efforts at silencing its critics, Kremlin complicity is a plausible scenario. It is all of a piece with the Russian government's efforts to silence internal criticism; within Russia, the independent electronic media have been brought under control through intimidation, prosecution and imprisonment of media and business moguls. Print media, too, is feeling the squeeze, but is harder to control than the public airwaves. In the Freedom House survey of media freedom in the world, 2006, Russia has slid towards the bottom during Mr. Putin's tenure.

As stands to reason it is not just the Russian media that is falling on hard times. When the free media go out the window -- no matter how annoying the powerful might find us at times -- so do a host of other pillars of a free society. NGOs operating in Russia have been feeling the squeeze as well. They are being put through more and more hoops to be allowed to operate, finding the Russian authorities breathing down their necks and threatening to revoke their licenses. It is a society where fear is again becoming widespread, and where wiretapping can again be taken for granted. Energy wealth has become the new vehicle for Russian ambitions for regional dominance. And sadly, Russian democracy has petrified into a support vehicle for the dictates of the presidency.

Were Russia a truly changed society, as we once hoped it would be, its government would have no problem with the investigation of this agonizing murder. Instead, the Russian government and its media mouthpieces are choosing to attack British investigators -- even the British public -- for being nervous Nellies. That approach is not likely to convince anyone abroad where the consequence can only be that Russia is regarded with more suspicion. It may even be that Europe will wake up and smell the polonium.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times