Akhmed Zakaev, the London-based foreign minister of the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI), has accused Western countries of standing by as Russia passed laws allowing its agents to hunt down opponents overseas, saying these had led to the murder of former Federal Security Service (FSB) lieutenant colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko. Litvinenko died in London on November 23 as a result of being poisoned by the radioactive element polonium-210. Scotland Yard has now officially deemed Litvinenko’s death a murder and a team of British detectives is in Moscow investigating the case.
Reuters, on December 6, quoted Zakaev, another London-based exile who was a close friend of Litvinenko, as linking Litvinenko’s suspected murder to the authorization given by Russia’s parliament in July for Putin to send soldiers or special forces anywhere in the world to fight those whom Moscow sees as terrorists. “Not one of the political leaders of the Western countries who were meeting under Putin’s chairmanship in the Group of Eight made any protest about this,” Zakaev told the news agency.
Separately, Sky News on December 7 quoted Zakaev as saying that he believed Moscow was responsible for Litvinenko’s death and that Russian forces have used polonium-210 in the past.
In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung published on December 4, a Russian-language translation of which was published the same day by Inopressa.ru, Zakaev said he believed that President Vladimir Putin was directly responsible for Litvinenko’s death. When asked who killed Litvinenko, Zakaev answered: “That, of course, is a question for the police, but I don’t think for a minute that it could have happened without the participation of his former colleagues – members of the special services – and, in particular, without his former colleague and chief, Vladimir Putin. I do not believe that it was simply a group inside the special services that wanted to harm Putin. An operation on this scale is impossible without the authorization of the top person in the state.”
Zakaev further told Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung: “Putin’s former teacher characterized him as a petty, evil and vindictive person. I believe that Putin hated Litvinenko and could not forgive him for becoming a turncoat. From the perspective of these people, he [Litvinenko] betrayed the homeland and the system. In the 400 years of Russo-Chechen history, Litvinenko was the first person of such a high rank to take up Russian war crimes in Chechnya. In addition to that, he collected precise information—names and dates of operations carried out. He was the ‘Number One” enemy of a regime, three-quarters of which consists of people from the special services.” Zakaev told the German newspaper that Litvinenko possessed a “colossal amount of information” about the work of the KGB and the FSB – “his own experiences, facts, connections; he knew who stood behind whom, who worked for whom.” According to Zakaev, “The FSB Blows up Russia,” the book that Litvinenko co-authored about the apartment building bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities in 1999, made Litvinenko the first author to have a book banned in Russia since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The book alleged that the FSB was behind the bombings, which killed more than 300 people and were blamed on Chechen separatists.
Zakaev said in his Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung interview that Chechen leaders had also been poisoned with polonium-210 in the past, and cited the case of rebel field commander Lecha Ismailov. “He died in 2004 in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison after drinking tea with two FSB officers,” Zakaev told the newspaper. The symptoms were the same – hair falling out, internal hemorrhaging.”
A number of observers have speculated that both Litvinenko and the journalist Anna Politkovskaya were murdered because of the succession crisis and factional power struggle triggered by the impending end of President Vladimir Putin’s second and final constitutionally mandated term in 2008. According to one theory, they were targeted by a faction – the so-called siloviki – which is trying to pressure Putin to remain in power after 2008 (Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 1, November 27, October 23; Chechnya Weekly, November 22, October 12).
Meanwhile, the Times reported on December 5 that intelligence services in Britain are convinced that Litvinenko’s poisoning was authorized by the FSB. The British newspaper quoted “security sources” as saying that the FSB orchestrated a “highly sophisticated plot” and was likely to have used some of its former agents to carry out the operation on the streets of London. “We know how the FSB operates abroad and, based on the circumstances behind the death of Mr. Litvinenko, the FSB has to be the prime suspect,” the Times quoted a source as saying. The newspaper wrote that the involvement of a former officer of the FSB made it easier to lure Litvinenko to meetings at various locations and to “distance its bosses in the Kremlin from being directly implicated in the plot.” Among the people whom Litvinenko met with on November 1, the day he was apparently poisoned, was Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB officer. The Times also quoted intelligence officials as saying that only officials, such as FSB agents, would have been able to obtain sufficient amounts of polonium-210 to fatally poison Litvinenko.
Litvinenko, who reportedly converted to Islam before his death, is set to be buried in London on December 7.