The apparent poisoning in London of former FSB lieutenant colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko (Chechnya Weekly, November 16) has grown into a major international scandal. Doctors and other specialists remain uncertain what substance poisoned Litvinenko, who accused the FSB of involvement in the 1999 apartment building bombings that killed around 300 people. Those bombings served as the pretext for the second Russian military intervention in Chechnya. Litvinenko was granted political asylum in Britain in 2001. (The British toxicologist John Henry initially pointed to the highly toxic heavy metal thallium, but doctors treating Litvinenko said this was unlikely. Henry later said the poisoning agent might have been radioactive thallium.) There is little doubt, however, that Litvinenko, who remains in serious condition in intensive care in London’s University College Hospital, was poisoned. As the BBC reported on November 21, Scotland Yard said it was treating Litvinenko’s illness as a suspected “deliberate poisoning.”
Meanwhile, the Italian professor who met with Litvinenko in a London restaurant on November 1, just before Litvinenko fell ill, said in a press conference in Rome on November 21 that he had asked to meet with the ex-FSB officer in London after receiving “very disturbing” information about “plots against Russians both in Italy and Great Britain.” Britain’s Sky News quoted Mario Scaramella as telling reporters that he had received from a contact a “hit list” that included him and Paolo Guzzanti, head of the Italian commission investigating KGB activities in Italy, as well as “people in Britain.” Scaramella said he asked Litvinenko to “make a call to his people in Russia to evaluate it” but that Litvinenko had told him “not to worry about it” and to call him later in the day or the following day. When Scaramella called Litvinenko the next day, the latter’s wife indicated he was ill with the flu. Litvinenko’s symptoms apparently then drastically worsened.
During his Rome press conference, Scaramella said Litvinenko had told him in London on November 1 that he had met with other people in the city earlier that morning. Kommersant on November 22 reported that Litvinenko met with two Russians on November 1 before meeting with Litvinenko, and identified one of them as Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB officer and former head of security for ORT television, as Russia’s state-controlled First Channel was known when it was under the de facto control of Boris Berezovsky, the erstwhile Kremlin insider who is now also living in exile in London and is a close associate of Litvinenko. Kommersant reported that it contacted Lugovoi in Moscow but that he refused to comment on the Litvinenko poisoning.
Former Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky, who also lives in exile in the United Kingdom and is a friend of Litvinenko, was quoted by Britain’s Times newspaper on November 20 as saying, in an apparent reference to Lugovoi: “He used to be in Mr. Berezovsky’s entourage and was imprisoned in Moscow. Then suddenly he was released, and soon after that he became a businessman and a millionaire. It is all very suspicious. But the KGB has recruited agents in prisons and camps since the 1930s. That is how they work.” Litvinenko apparently drank tea during his meeting with Lugovoi and the other unidentified Russian in London on November 1, and Scaramella said in his Rome press conference that he understood that the British authorities are investigating the possibility that Litvinenko was poisoned during that meeting.
Scaramella said during his press conference that the information he had received was in two e-mails and that he passed the information on to the British authorities through diplomatic channels. “The information was disturbingly serious and these people are very dangerous. I was warned to be very careful as these people are well organized,” he said. “The information regarded plots to do something both in Italy and Great Britain. There were several Russian people in Britain on that list as well as Litvinenko, Mr. Guzzanti and myself.” According to Sky News, Scaramella refused to elaborate on where the list had come from other than to say it came “from someone who lives out of Russia.” However, the Los Angeles Times on November 22 quoted him as saying that he had alerted Litvinenko to an e-mail he had received, warning that both of their names had surfaced on a hit list connected to organized criminals in St. Petersburg.
According to Sky News, Scaramella appeared at his Rome news conference with bodyguards and, when asked if he was scared and what steps he had taken to increase his own personal security, replied: “I don’t want to answer that question. These people are very dangerous. We are talking about people involved in the murder of Anna Politkovskaya.” He also described how there was a “strong connection” between the Russian mafia and the former KGB and their successor organizations, the FSB and SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service), and said that Litvinenko had provided information that led to the arrest of six Ukrainians who were smuggling arms between Russia and Italy for an attempted hit. Scaramella added: “About a year ago Litvinenko contacted me to say he had details about arms being smuggled to Italy. With that information I contacted the Italian intelligence services and he also spoke to them. It led to the arrest of six Ukrainians near Teramo who were found with arms. They had hidden powerful grenades – strong enough to take out a tank or an armored car – inside two hollowed out Bibles. The information was that these grenades were intended for a hit man from the former Eastern bloc who was living in the Naples area.” When asked directly what he thought of the attempt on Litvinenko’s life, Scaramella said: “It was a political assassination.”
As various media have pointed out in the wake of Litvinenko’s apparent poisoning, Yuri Shchekochikhin, the State Duma deputy from the Yabloko party and Novaya gazeta deputy editor who died in July 2003 after a mysterious illness, is believed to have been poisoned. Shchekochikhin had been investigating the Tri Kita case, involving alleged corruption by FSB officials, as well as the 1999 apartment building bombings. In addition, Anna Politkovskaya was apparently poisoned as she was traveling to Beslan, North Ossetia, to try to mediate the hostage crisis there in September 2004.
Perhaps the most interesting take on the Litvinenko poisoning case came from Boris Berezovsky. The website of Ekho Moskvy on November 20 quoted the exiled tycoon as saying in an interview with the radio station that the organizers of the attempt on Litvinenko’s life should be sought out in the Kremlin and that he did not rule out that it was carried out on President Vladimir Putin’s orders. However, the website quoted Berezovsky as then saying that while the Kremlin “unquestionably” stood behind the poisoning, Putin’s participation in it “raises many questions” and the incident “undoubtedly hurts Putin’s reputation.”
Berezovsky added: “I have the impression that it is being done by people who are insisting that he [Putin] goes for a third term; people who are showing that he is not the only one who makes decisions of this kind in Russia.” The attempt on Litvinenko’s life and the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, said Berezovsky, were “links in the same chain.”
The SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, denied involvement in Litvinenko’s poisoning, the Associated Press reported on November 22. “Litvinenko is not the kind of person for whose sake we would spoil bilateral relations,” Interfax quoted Sergei Ivanov, a Foreign Intelligence Service spokesman, as saying. “It is absolutely not in our interests to be engaged in such activity.” On November 21, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed suggestions that Russian intelligence services were involved as “sheer nonsense.”