Edward Lucas: Irish Daily Mail piece
- Irish Daily Mail piece
"Nyet faktov, tolko versii" [No facts, only theories] is a Russian
saying that captures perfectly the difficulty of trying to fit the
attempted murder of Yegor Gaidar, a former prime minister, together
with the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko (a defector from Russia's
FSB security service) and the shooting of Anna Politkovskaya, a
They could hardly be more different. The other two were outspoken
figures who already lived in fear of their lives. Mr Gaidar was widely
respected in Moscow: at most a moderate critic, at least in public, of
Vladimir Putin's regime. Unlike most retired Russian politicians, he
cared little for personal wealth: his energies were devoted to his
free-market thinktank, where his rotund figure and beaming smile
contrasted with his spartan office: undecorated, when I last visited,
except for a pile of economic journals and a solitary holiday postcard.
Though he privately deplored the loss of political freedom in Russia
in the past six years, Mr Gaidar was happiest discussing the arcane
details of economic policy. Admittedly, many ordinary Russians loathed
him, blaming his tough free-market policies in the early 1990s for the
loss of their savings and the collapse of the Soviet-era economy. But
few in the Kremlin would agree. Most rich and powerful Russians regard
him as a hero, whose liberalisation of prices began Russia's recovery
from the planned economy.
What could someone like thata cerebral, establishment figurehave in
common with Mr Litvinenko, a shadowy ex-spook who publicly accused Mr
Putin of paedophilia, and Ms Politkovskaya, a journalist whose
incendiary articles regularly described the Russian president and his
aides as war criminals?
The most terrifying explanation is that the Kremlin, or some other
powerful faction in Russia, is systematically intimidating every kind
of critic. Ms Politkovskaya because she was their best-known critic in
the media, both at home and abroad. Mr Litvinenko because he was a
defector. Mr Gaidar because his brainy liberal views undermine the
Kremlin's authoritarian and incompetent rule.
But it is puzzling that the poisoning was unsuccessful. Was this just
a warning, or was it bungled?
Mr Gaidar, his daughter and his friends all say that they do not think
Mr Putin's Kremlin is behind the poisoning (if that is indeed what it
was). British security officials are hedging their bets. They think
that a "rogue element" of current and former FSB officers is at work.
If so, what do they want? Are they doing what they think Mr Putin will
like? Are they trying to undermine him. Or perhaps to force his hand?
One of Mr Gaidar's closest friends, Anatoly Chubais, now runs Russia's
giant electricity company, UES. He is publicly loyal to the Kremlin,
but privately says he is increasingly worried that bad government is
starving the country of investment. "It was a miracle that we kept the
lights on last winter. And this winter will be even harder," he
confided recently to a visitor.
He believes that the murders "perfectly correspond to the interests
and the vision of those people who are openly talking about a
forceful, unconstitutional change of power in Russia."
One possibility is that hardliners want to force Mr Putin from power,
and replace him with someone more decisive and forceful, who will
overtly rebuild the Soviet empire, rather than doing it behind the
scenes as at the moment. But that seems unlikely. Mr Putin is the most
popular politician in Russian history. It would be hard find anyone to
Alternatively, it could be an attempt by hardliners to force him into
their camp. If relations with the West deteriorate sharply, then
Russia's only option will be to abandon any pretence of democracy and
retreat into an alliance with rogue states such as Iran. But that
hardly seems likely either. Russia has cultivated good relations with
European countries such as France and Germany, in order to squeeze the
countries inbetween such as Poland and the Baltic states. Why abandon
that tactic when it is working so well?
The Kremlin's own line is that the whole thing is got up by enemies of
Russia, chiefly Boris Berezovsky, the London-based billionaire who was
closely linked to Mr Litvinenko. Both men believe that the Kremlin
blew up apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999 in order to blame them on
Chechen terrorists, and create a public panic that would ease Mr
Putin's path to power.
One clue is that the Russian constitution says that Mr Putin has to
stand down as Russian president in 2008. Inside its red walls, the
Kremlin is abuzz with intrigue about how to manage this "problem". One
option is to change the constitution, to allow a third consecutive
term. Another is to ignore itby declaring a state of emergencyand
third is to bypass it, by shifting Mr Putin to another job, and
installing a figurehead as president. Somewhere in this maze of
intrigue may lie the answer to the serial murders of Russia's critics.
But the only thing that is really certain is that we do not know the
truth. Russia's security services are masters in the art of
"maskirovka" [camouflage]. Whether the aim is to manipulate opinion in
Russia or abroad, or to intimidate critics, or something else, enough
false clues will be strewn that we are unlikely to see what is really
going on until it is too late.
Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.