Following the Litvinenko Trail Death by Poison, Direct from Moscow

Why are Russian President Vladimir Putin's opponents dying? Former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko is only the most recent victim of assassination. Indications hint at a battle for power in Moscow -- between the government and the secret service.

For four long days in November, Andrei Nekrasov stayed at the bedside of dying Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko, watching helplessly as his friend Sacha's condition steadily and implacably deteriorated. All the while, Nekrasov had to face the massive army of media present at the University College Hospital in London.

On last Thursday, though, after Litvinenko's death, Nekrasov was rushing through jam-packed Terminal 1 at London's Heathrow Airport. Two British Airways Boeing 767s stood outside on the tarmac. London police had ordered them taken out of service after traces of the same radioactive metal that killed Litvinenko, polonium 210, had been detected in the two aircraft. The airline set up a hotline in an effort to contact more than 30,000 people throughout Europe who been passengers on either of the two aircraft since Oct. 25 and may have been exposed to radiation.

Although fear of this ominous threat had already spread far beyond London, film director Nekrasov, on his way to an appointment in Milan, was unafraid. Given the magnitude of the dramatic events he had witnessed, the thought that he himself could have been exposed to radiation at Litvinenko's deathbed seemed to him ridiculous. Officials in London had offered to test him for possible exposure, but Nekrasov turned them down. He was in Ukraine after the Chernobyl accident where he was "of course exposed," he says, matter-of-factly. "What I could have gotten from Alexander is minimal."

Nekrasov first met Litvinenko in 2002 when he was filming a documentary called "Disbelief." The two men spent entire nights talking and eventually became friends. They also attended a memorial service for murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Westminster Abbey together. As they were leaving the church after the service, Litvinenko said: "It's quite clear that they are working down a list of targets. The state has become a serial killer." But unlike his dead friend, who, until his last breath, had accused the Russian president directly of having ordered the murder, Nekrasov finds it difficult to believe that Vladimir Putin was directly responsible for ordering the poisoning. Instead, said Nekrasov, Putin is unable to control certain elements among his allies, "people who sit in their dachas and saunas, bragging that they can find and destroy anyone -- anywhere in the world -- who displeases them."

The list

In other words, Litvinenko wasn't the only one. Politkovskaya may also have been on this suspected list. Journalist Jan Travinsky, shot to death in the Siberian city of Irkutsk in 2004, is another possibility. And what about the former Chechen head of security Movladi Baisarov, who, after being arrested, was shot in Moscow in broad daylight on Nov. 18? And Andrey Kozlov, the deputy chairman of the Russian Central Bank, who fell victim to assassins on Sept. 13? Was a powerful clique behind all those murders?

The ongoing series of murders -- a series which may have found its most recent victim on Monday with the murder of Alexander Samoilenko, the general director of the gas company Itera-Samara -- has many suspecting that doing away with political opponents may once again be a favored strategy inside the Kremlin. Former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was famous for it -- and now, it seems as though the baton has been passed, with dissidents in President Vladimir Putin's Russia once again having to fear for their lives. Even former political leaders may not be safe -- doctors have been unable to diagnose a mysterious illness which befell ex-premier Yegor Gaidar in Ireland last week. Poisoning is a leading candidate.

The series of gruesome attacks in recent years goes on and on -- and the majority of them have never been solved. As a pro-Western presidential candidate in 2004, Viktor Yushchenko barely survived a poison attack during his campaign against the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych. In July 2003, journalist and human rights activist Yuri Shchekochikin died of something his doctors defined as an "allergic reaction." Many in Russia think they know who is responsible for these and other, similar murders -- and their fingers generally point to Moscow. Putin, for his part, insists that such accusations are completely unfounded. At the European Union summit meeting in Helsinki in late November, the Russian president pointed out drolly that other countries also have their share of unsolved murders. Still, his apparent lack of interest in the Politkovskaya murder -- and the conspiracy theories flourishing as a result -- is doing him no favors in the global court of public opinion. That and the fact that at least 13 Russian journalists have lost their lives under peculiar circumstances since 2000. An official investigation, it seems, might not be such a bad idea.

The Litvinenko affair is only the most recent evoking uncomfortable memories of the Cold War -- casting a sinister light on post-Soviet Russia. It has also raised eyebrows among Russia's allies abroad.

"Very, very serious matter"

"It is obviously a very, very serious matter indeed," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in Copenhagen while en route to the NATO summit in Riga, Latvia. "We are determined to find out what happened and who is responsible," he added before assuring that "no diplomatic or political barrier" would stand in the way of the investigation.

Peter Hain, Blair's Northern Ireland secretary, was even more direct. "The promise that President Putin brought to Russia when he came to power has been clouded by what has happened since, including some extremely murky murders," Hain said, in what many have interpreted as an insinuation of Kremlin involvement.

Putin himself has seemed oddly indifferent to the international outcry and accusations against his person and government, almost as if he is not taking them seriously. He shows no sign of concern for his country's reputation, let alone compassion for the murder victims. Indeed, his pokerfaced demeanor in recent days has been much more reminiscent of a cold-hearted, former KGB colonel then a head of state.

His only reaction to the murder of journalist Politkovskaya was to critique her work as being "extremely insignificant." On the Litvinenko case, Sergei Ivanov, a spokesman for the Russian foreign intelligence service, commented that the man was "not the kind of person for whose sake we would spoil bilateral relations (with Great Britain)."

When pressed for a personal reaction by journalists at the EU-Russia summit, Putin called the death a "tragedy" and expressed his sparsely worded condolences for the family. But, in the same breath, he also questioned the authenticity of Litvinenko's deathbed letter and warned the British authorities not to

"fuel groundless political scandals." Instead of appointing a high-profile commission to investigate the ongoing series of murders, Putin merely promised to "support the British, if possible."

What is going on here? When Putin came to power at the very end of 1999, Europe saw him and Russia as a partner and ally. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, his country made giant steps toward the West through various treaties and agreements, and by becoming Europe's single most important energy supplier. Not only that, but the Russian economy finally regained its strength and the government seemed to have at least the rudiments of a free and open democracy. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder even famously called him a "flawless democrat." Nowadays, it looks more than ever that the West was merely being naïve.

Memories of gulags

Still, the West needs Russia. The vast country is more than just an energy superpower, the world's second-largest petroleum producer and the country with far and away the planet's largest natural gas reserves. It has since become a political heavyweight. If any power can prevent Iran from going nuclear and convince Syria to help bring peace to the Middle East, that power is Russia. Moscow's help is likewise indispensable when it comes to controlling the highly dangerous North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and his weapons arsenal.

The ailing United States now needs Russia more than it could ever have wanted. "Whatever the final outcome of the cases, the deaths of Litvinenko and Politkovskaya have chilled Russia's already frosty civil society, and revived memories most Russians would prefer to forget," wrote US news magazine Time in late November.

The memories Time refers to are those of gulags, and of the days when fear was a part of everyday life. They are memories of the Soviet days when dissidents -- aside from a handful of heroes like Andrey Sakharov and Natan Sharansky, who risked their lives to oppose the state -- only dared express their views in the absolute privacy of their kitchens and only to those they truly trusted.

Anyone who visits Moscow today sees a gleaming, cosmopolitan city that seems to differ from Paris, London or New York in only one respect: the higher hotel and restaurant prices. Every major global corporation has an office in the Russian capital, and leading fashion houses Gucci, Hermès and Dior sell more at the city's "Millionaires' Trade Show" than in any other city on earth. Lavish wealth is as much in evidence as the rise of a new middle class which, at least in the capital, can afford its growing devotion to all things Western, from McDonald's to Microsoft.

Soviet-style press censorship no longer exists. Russian television viewers can watch any channel they want, including CNN, BBC and Deutsche Welle. Fifteen years after the Soviet Union faded into history, Russia is transformed. The country has become vastly wealthier, repays its debts early and, thanks to its oil and natural gas bonanza, now has huge foreign currency reserves (currently estimated at more than $272 billion). And it is undoubtedly far more cosmopolitan than the Soviet Union ever was.

Part II: The Kremlin strengthens its grip on control

Despite all that, fear is making a comeback. It is the fear of a gradual "de-democratization" of Russia and of a president who seems to be tending toward authoritarianism.

As in the days of Czar Nikolai II, policy is once again being made "at court," says Dimitry Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center. "The president as a modern czar is the only functioning institution." Indeed, the country's constitutional court confirmed this only a few months ago when it issued an Orwellian decision. Because the Russian president, the court argued, is the "direct representative of the entire people," whereas the people are "the sole source of power," Putin is entitled to any powers he desires -- even if they are not mentioned in the constitution.

The country's political institutions have been consolidated. Military and intelligence veterans make up about 60 percent of Russia's highest-ranking leadership. Governors were forced to resign their seats on the Federation Council, and the upper house of parliament was practically stripped of its power. The Kremlin rendered most parties irrelevant when it enacted a new party law it had drafted itself. Putin's party, United Russia, which holds a two-thirds majority in Russia's parliament now ruthlessly adjusts parliamentary rules to suit its needs.

Bleak months

Two restrictive and highly controversial new laws are likely to be enacted this year. Now that foreign-backed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that were criticizing Russia's gradual slide into autocracy have been put on tighter leashes, the government hopes to impose strict registration (essentially government monitoring) requirements on domestic NGOs. The second questionable draft legislation calls for introducing "control over political extremism," with the Kremlin serving as the final arbiter on what exactly falls under that category.

For activists and Kremlin critics, the last few months have been among the bleakest since the beginning of the Putin era, even without factoring in violent crime. The authorities had human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov arrested and imprisoned for three days. His crime? He had organized a demonstration for the victims of the tragedy in Beslan, where terrorists took more than 1,000 people hostage and Putin's special forces caused a bloodbath during their "liberation" effort.

Government whimsicality has also plagued Lidiya Yussupova, whose organization documents attacks by Russian soldiers on the civilian population in Chechnya. Journalists who complain about the state -- who go public with official treatment ranging from court summons to repression and anonymous threats -- are especially likely to find themselves under "observation." At the same time, the Kremlin has tightened its reins on the free press. While Russian TV viewers can watch violence, sex and soap operas to their hearts' content, the Kremlin controls most news and information programming. According to the journalists' union, 90 percent of the news on stations broadcast throughout Russia is devoted exclusively to the state -- and to Putin himself.

The government has paid less attention to the written press until recently. But in the last few months, the Kremlin, using state-controlled Gazprom and its media holding company as a front, has purchased the influential Isvestiya. Gazprom's acquisition of the country's highest-circulation daily newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, is already a done deal and will take effect in early 2007.

Back in the USSR

But along with the Kremlin's increased control over media and the state, fears of a new, non-transparent and undemocratic Russia are rising as the list of sinister murders -- affecting business leaders, reporters and government critics alike -- grows longer. "There may no longer be shortages of groceries and long lines at every street corner, but Russia today is still a place where human rights and freedom are in short supply," Lyudmila Alexeyeva, something of a grande dame among regime critics, told Time. She helped create the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976 -- a group which played an important role in softening the Soviet Union and bringing down the communist party's leaders. "People who question the policies of our government are increasingly targeted. People who work for human rights are increasingly under attack. So, are we in Russia? Are we back in the U.S.S.R.?"

Poison victim Litvinenko was without question one of the regime's toughest, but also possibly one of its most nonconformist critics. Who was this former spy? Some former colleagues have derided him as a braggart and a show-off. But could he also have recognized the shadowy nature of Soviet power politics early on and become a champion of truth?

Litvinenko spent most of his working life in the armed forces and the intelligence services. Drafted into the Soviet army at 18, it took him only eight years to be admitted to the KGB, in 1988, where he worked in the Soviet intelligence agency's counterterrorism unit. In the KGB's successor organization, the FSB, Litvinenko was assigned to Department 7, which dealt with organized crime. Public accusations against the Kremlin got him chucked out of the FSB in 1998. At a spectacular press conference, Litvinenko claimed that he had been ordered to murder oligarch Boris Berezovsky. He was arrested and later released, at which point he left the country and moved to exile in London.

In 2002 Litvinenko published a book titled "The FSB is Blowing Up Russia," a political thriller in which he blamed Putin's intelligence service for the bombings of apartment complexes in Moscow and other cities -- a series of explosions which ultimately killed 246 people and injured 2,000.

More accusations leveled at his former employer soon followed. In an interview with Australian television station SBS, Litvinenko claimed that at least two of the Chechens who stormed a theater in Moscow in 2002 worked for the FSB. He told the Polish paper Rzeczpospolita that the FSB had trained al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Dagestan, the republic bordering Chechnya, in 1998. And in April of this year, he claimed that Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi had been involved in the 1981 attempted assassination of former Pope John Paul II. "His conspiracy theories were everything" he had left after fleeing from Moscow, says political scientist James Heartfield, who interviewed the former spy for several hours in May of this year.

The fantastic story surrounding his own murder seems to fit right in to the shady list of intrigue. Indeed, was there not proof all over London, it would stretch the imagination. The radioactive trail left behind by the victim and his presumed murderers has enabled Scotland Yard investigators to easily retrace their steps. Their dilettantism with handling the radioactive poisoning even prompted one member of the British government's crisis management team to ridicule the perpetrators as a far cry from being James Bond-like killers. Scotland Yard currently assumes that a group of five suspects, including former and current FSB agents, arrived from Moscow on British Airways flight 873 on Oct. 25.

Radioactive traces of death

The British authorities have also painstakingly reconstructed Litvinenko's fateful last walk through Mayfair, one of London's most expensive neighborhoods, on Nov. 1. He visited the Itsu Sushi Bar on Piccadilly Circus, the Ritz diagonally across the street, the exclusive Millennium Hotel on Grosvenor Square, the office of Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky on Down Street, and, finally, a security firm on Grosvenor Street called Erinys. Traces of the radioactive material that led to the former spy's death were found in all of these places.

Litvinenko told the Scotland Yard investigators where he had been on his last walk through the city and gave them the names of the people he had met. The list reads like a cast of characters in a cheap spy novel. First there is the Italian named Mario Scaramella, to whom Litvinenko said he gave a four-page document at the Itsu sushi restaurant. The document supposedly contained information about the murderers of journalist Politkovskaya. According to Litvinenko, it also contained a hit list put together by an obscure organization of alleged FSB officers and KGB veterans. The names Scaramella and Litvinenko were supposedly on that list.

On his deathbed, Litvinenko said that he suspected Scaramella might have given him the deadly poison. Indeed, even after suspicion seemed to veer away from Scaramella last week after the Italian voluntarily submitted to Scotland Yard questioning, he is once again seen as a key to the investigation. Despite having claimed to only have drunk water at the Japanese restaurant while Litvinenko ate miso soup and drank tea, he has tested positive for polonium 210. He is said not to be in danger, but it remains unclear how or where he came into contact with the poison.

A second meeting on that fateful Nov. 1 is likewise surrounded by questions. Litvinenko met Russian nationals Andrei Lugovoi, Vyacheslav Sokolenko and Dimitry Kowtun in the Pine Bar at the Millennium Hotel. Kowtun had flown in from Hamburg. Lugovoi, a former colleague of Litvinenko from his days as an agent, has since reported his version of the meeting. According to Lugovoi, Litvinenko had approached the men to arrange for their services in Great Britain. The real reason for the flight to London, Lugovoi claims, was an upcoming Champions League football match between ZSKA Moscow and FC Arsenal. That, says Lugovoi, was where he and his companions, along with his wife and their three children, went after meeting with Litvinenko.

Belying this version of the trip, however, is the fact that traces of polonium 210 were found in one of the hotel rooms and on light switches in that room. A Scotland Yard investigator told the Daily Telegraph that the contamination was so great that the poison must have been in the room, and could not come from the poisoning victim. Indeed, the visitors were apparently so nonchalant in handling the material that they dropped some of it on the carpet.

The third interesting find was in the office of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. The billionaire, normally a high-profile and very public critic of his archenemy Putin, withdrew to his office after the traces of the radioactive element were found on the premises. "I have no comment," he wheezed into his mobile phone, and promptly issued a statement expressing his "full confidence in the British police." According to his PR consultant Lord Bell, a man who once worked for former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Berezovsky, who has been convinced for years that his life is in danger, confronts his fate "defiantly and courageously." But others who know Berezovsky have a different take on the matter. "Berezovsky is afraid that he could be next," says one man.

Part III: Death by Polonium 210

Just how much of the radioactive poison was given to Litvinenko remains unclear. But the substance is strong enough that administering a lethal dose would not have been difficult. A single drop added to any food or beverage would have been plenty. And even former KGB agent Litvinenko would have been unable to taste that it was there.

Once polonium has entered the bloodstream, its so-called alpha radiation wreaks havoc on the tissue, especially in places where cell division takes place more frequently, such as the intestines, hair and, most of all, bone marrow, which produces a constant supply of blood and immune cells.

Litvinenko's symptoms -- nausea, diarrhea and hair loss -- were typical of radiation sickness. In the end his immune system simply broke down. Also typical of radiation sickness was the initial attack of weakness followed by a period of deceptive stability, in which most of the cells in Litvinenko's body that were especially susceptible to radiation were already dead or doomed. This period of apparent recovery is known as the "walking ghost" phase of radiation-related illness.

Favored weapon of Moscow

When Litvinenko's immune system broke down on Nov. 17, he was transferred to the University College Hospital, where he died on Nov. 23. Only a few hours before his death, doctors, who had initially believed that their patient had thallium poisoning, discovered significant amounts of radioactive polonium 210 in his urine.

Litvinenko's death brings back memories of an entire series of poison attacks -- all of which are suspected of being connected with the Russian intelligence service. Perhaps the world's most dramatic poison attack was that two years ago in Ukraine when Viktor Yushchenko was running for president. As part of his campaign, he had, with Western backing, announced that he planned to reduce the country's dependence on Moscow. At the time, Putin openly supported Yushchenko's rival and current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.

Yushchenko became severely ill after a dinner with two high-ranking members of the Ukrainian intelligence agency SBU, the successor to the Ukrainian arm of the KGB. Tests performed at Vienna's Rudolfinerhaus Hospital showed that he had been poisoned with dioxin. The 50-year-old politician's face has been disfigured by lesions ever since.

Many members of the SBU maintain close contacts with their counterparts in Moscow. The obvious suspicion that Russian intelligence was involved in the poisoning incident was never proven -- and yet it wasn't difficult to find a motive for the Russians. Russia's goal of reemerging as a major world power depended to a large degree on close political, economic and military ties to Ukraine.

Another victim was Roman Zepov, who was killed two years ago in St. Petersburg where he ran a security firm. Zepov, a graduate of a military school run by the interior ministry, was head of security in the early 1990s for Putin, then the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. Putin even invited him to the Kremlin for his inauguration as president in May 2000. Zepov had already launched his security firm by then. Zepov believed he was well protected against attacks. In an interview shortly before his death, he boasted: "There has not been a single death or injury among my clients or my employees."

A dangerous 'allergic reaction'

But his murderers apparently spared no expense. Significant levels of radioactivity were found in his body after his death. The doctors who treated Zepov conjectured that the poison could have been a drug used to treat leukemia.

Politicians in Russia have also fallen victim to deadly attacks. Dimitry Fotyanov, 31, was considered a superstar within the pro-Kremlin party United Russia in the Primorsky Krai region near Vladivostok in the Russian Far East. A successful businessman, he was seen as a prime candidate for mayor of the city of Dalnegorsk. But at the height of the election campaign in mid-October, Fotyanov was killed by shots from an automatic pistol. Boris Gryslov, the president of the local parliament, called it a "political murder."

Three years earlier, in July 2003, civil rights activist and investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikin died an agonizing death. His skin peeled away from his flesh and his lungs and brain became swollen. Shchekochikin, like Anna Politkovskaya, worked for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gaseta, and like Politkovskaya, he was especially interested in Chechnya and corruption.

Shchekochikin was also a member of the Russian parliament and of its anti-corruption committee. When he died, he had been planning to write an expose on furniture smuggling, the arms trade and money laundering. Two deputies of then General State Prosecutor Vladimir Ustinov, as well as officials in the interior ministry, the domestic intelligence agency FSB and the customs authority were allegedly involved in the scandal.

Shchekochikin and other members of parliament wanted to call on Putin to investigate the matter. After meeting with FBI representatives in Moscow in June, Shchekochikin also planned to trace the money launderers' tracks to the United States. But he never made it that far.

In early July, Shchekochikin suddenly and unexpectedly died of an allergic reaction. According to the official diagnosis, he died of Lyell's syndrome. But the Novaya Gaseta documented a number of irregularities surrounding the case. Some of the doctors were suddenly reassigned, and a third blood sample, the last taken before his death, was lost in the interior ministry. Friends and relatives are convinced that Shchekochikin was murdered. The reason, they say, that the case was never solved is clear: because the trail leads too high up in the administration.

Former prosecutor Ustinov, now the justice minister, is closely related by marriage to Igor Sechin, the deputy Kremlin chief of staff, a Putin confidante and behind-the-scenes powerbroker at the Kremlin. In November 2003, Ustinov's son Dimitry married Sechin's daughter Inga.

Nothing short of an execution

Most recently, of course, is the murder of 48-year-old Moscow journalist Anna Politkovskaya -- nothing short of an execution and a clear message to government critics everywhere. Politkovskaya was completely defenseless when she emerged from Ramstore, a shop on Moscow's Franze Quay, at 4:05 p.m. on Oct. 7, carrying five shopping bags of weekend groceries: food, vegetables, a few kitchen and bath items.

Politkovskaya parked her silver Lada, went into the lobby of her building and walked to the elevator. When the elevator door opened, the murderer fired three shots at close range. Two of the bullets hit the journalist near her heart and the third shattered her shoulder. But the killer wasn't finished. Just to make sure, he fired a fourth bullet into the dead woman's head.

The Russian interior ministry does not publish statistics on its success rate in solving contract killings. But ministry official Leonid Kondratyuk did reveal that between 500 and 800 contract killings are committed each year in Russia. The unofficial figure, according to Kondratyuk, could even be two or three times as high.

Despite the fact that Putin has installed countless intelligence agents in key positions in the interior ministry and police force, the security situation has not improved. A total of 3,655 murders and attempted murders committed between January and October 2006 remain unsolved. While Russia's economy grows by an impressive 7 percent, crime is up 13 percent. Half a dozen bankers have been murdered in the last few weeks alone.

Two weeks ago Konstantin Mecheryakov, the 33-year-old co-founder of Spezeztroibank, was killed in front of his house in Moscow. He was shot in his back, neck and head. Russian authorities, as they do so often is such cases, provided their own razor-sharp analysis: The death of the victim, they said, was "tied to his professional activities."

Part IV: Up next -- a former prime minister

The most prominent of these recent victims, Andrei Kozlov, 41, had just attended a football game and, together with his bodyguard, was emerging from the sauna at the Spartak clubhouse on Oleniy Wal in Moscow. Before Kozlov, the deputy director of Russia's central bank, could reach his armor-plated official car, two shots were fired. Kozlov and his bodyguard were both killed.

Kozlov, a committed liberal who, in 1995, was elected deputy head of the central bank at age 30, wanted to establish international standards in the Russian banking system. He introduced a law that would provide insurance for savings deposits. Many Russian banks are still fraught with underworld activity or used by organized crime to launder money.

Kozlov, who was in charge of the government's bank supervision agency, had declared war on this underworld element in the banking system. In the space of only three years, he withdrew the licenses of 260 banks, thereby quickly increasing the number of his enemies.

Most killers remain anonymous

Investigators say that the Kozlov murder was extremely professional. The killers and their clients were intimately familiar with the high-ranking official's schedule. Critical Moscow business magazine Expert suspects that Kozlov could have angered both conventional criminals and corrupt high-ranking officials within the government security services.

Most killers, and certainly most of those who order the killings, are rarely identified. The work of investigators is hindered by corruption within law enforcement agencies, low pay for their officials and poor technical equipment. Since 1991, many qualified officials in the police force and intelligence services have taken jobs in the better-paying private security industry. Russia's investigators have not recovered from this loss of some of their best people.

In an interview with DER SPIEGEL last week , Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov pointed out: "some contract killings, such as that of politicians Galina Starovoytova, have been solved." Kozlov's murderers have also been found, says Ivanov, but not their backers. "Unfortunately it is often the case that the perpetrators receive their dirty money from middlemen and don't even know who their real clients are," Ivanov conceded.

Only in rare cases can the suspicion be eliminated that professional murders are mainly the work of those who learned to kill professionally -- the successors to the Committee for State Security, or KGB.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, 2.9 million people, or 1 percent of the population, were on the immense KGB's payroll. Thousands of agents abroad and hundreds of thousands of domestic informers received their orders from the Lubyanka, the popular name of the KGB headquarters complex, as did special regiments of tanks, ships and aircraft. For years, the KGB's own football club, Dynamo, dominated the Soviet league. The KGB was essentially a state within a state.

Beginning in 1967, party leader Yuri Andropov proved to be especially adept at using the KGB to contain dissidents and spy on the Soviet people with limited bloodshed. Andropov was also the first head of the KGB who managed to make it into the Kremlin, although his tenure there was brief. He died after only two years in office, and was succeeded one year later by his protégé, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Job cutbacks for the KGB

Gorbachev was careful not to force his perestroika on the men at the Lubyanka. In fact, he convinced many of them to support his new direction. The "Kagebechiks," as KGB members were called, were by no means unanimous in their support for the old regime. After all, no other institution in the Soviet realm was quite as well informed about the dismal state of the government, economy and public sentiment as the intelligence service.

At the time, Moskovskiye Novosty registered, with some concern, that "the focus of the power oligarchy began shifting toward the KGB." Thousands of agents ran for office in the regional parliaments or became involved in business. KGB members assumed control over many banks and companies. After the attempted coup in 1991, the agency suffered a brief setback. Boris Yeltsin, Russia's new strongman, dismantled the KGB and ordered job cutbacks.

Many agents began looking for new lines of work. According to a 1997 analysis by German's foreign intelligence agency, the Russian intelligence services had entered into a "mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship" with organized crime. Agents joined the Russian mafia and former KGB soldiers became contract killers at home and abroad.

Others took jobs with the oligarchs who, like Boris Berezovsky, had accumulated vast fortunes in the wild 1990s. One of those agents with Litvinenko, Vladislav Surkov -- a member of military intelligence who took a job with the then Chairman of Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- now works in Putin's presidential office.

The Litvinenko case clearly has Moscow concerned, and may even be trying to hinder the investigation. Moscow announced on Tuesday that it will not extradite possible suspects to Britain for trial, the prosecutor general said.

Political artiste par excellence

But does that mean, as Alexander Litvinenko alleged on his deathbed, that Putin was responsible for his death? Both Putin's supporters and his adversaries largely agree that is unlikely to be the case. Prominent author Viktor Yerofeyev, more a critic than a friend of the Kremlin, believes that the string of murders have not done Putin any good. He says that there are some with influence who would like to see Russia distance itself from Europe.

Last week's events directed a brighter spotlight at a man who is all too familiar with, and indeed an unmatched master at playing, the intrigues of Moscow's powerful. Anatoly Chubais, the current head of powerful electric utility Jes AG, was the head of the Kremlin administration under former President Boris Yeltsin. Chubais is a political artiste par excellence. He has kept his head above water throughout the ebb and flow of Russian politics in the last 15 years, even surviving a mine attack one and a half years ago. The presumed attacker, Vladimir Kvachkov, 58, a former special agent and a colonel in the military intelligence agency, is currently on trial in Moscow.

In the early 1990s, Chubais served as privatization minister in the government of former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. Gaidar was also hospitalized last week after collapsing during a visit to Dublin. After drinking a cup of tea and eating a bowl of fruit salad, the politician spent half an hour spitting up blood and temporarily lost consciousness.

In a frightening parallel to the Litvinenko case, doctors have been unable to determine the cause of Gaidar's ailment, though he has been released from hospital. In a live, televised interview, Chubais said that Gaidar's illness could "hardly have been triggered by natural causes," adding that it was nothing short of a "miracle" that the "a deadly Politkovskaya-Litvinenko-Gaidar triangle" was not completed -- a feat Chubais claimed "supporters of an unconstitutional and violent power shift in Russia" had attempted to accomplish.

Chubais's and Yerofeyev's intimations are backed by a theory that has been hotly discussed among foreign political scientists for some time: that Putin is not the omnipotent Kremlin leader the West likes to perceive him as. The theory holds that the influence of other powerful groups is greater than has been assumed. Proponents believe that, in the run-up to the 2007 parliamentary elections and the 2008 presidential election, elements within the intelligence community are concerned that Putin's overtures to the West could adversely affect their spheres of influence. The solution for these members of the Russian intelligence community, say the theorists, is to destroy the president's image abroad.

In his television interview last week, Chubais may have been deliberately using the adjective "silovoi," a term Russians interpret as a clear allusion to the Russian intelligence services. The men surrounding Putin are known as "Siloviki," or powerful people. Igor Sechin, the publicity-shy deputy head of the presidential administration, is considered their secret leader. Putin and Sechin have known each other for 15 years. Sechin worked as Putin's chief of staff when the president was still deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. When Putin became the Russian president, Sechin followed him to Moscow to become his chief of staff.

The Russian banana republic

The two men share a common past in intelligence. In the Soviet days, Putin worked as a KGB colonel in Dresden while Sechin served as an interpreter in the Mozambiquan civil war. Sechin is adept at painting his enemies in a dim light to promote his own image. In June 2003, he allowed political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky to leak a dossier warning against a power grab by the country's oligarchs. The document identified Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of oil conglomerate Yukos, as the leader of the conspiracy. Khodorkovsky was arrested a few months later and his company dismantled.

Rosneft, a state-owned company, acquired Yukos's crown jewel, the west Siberian energy company Yuganskneftegaz, in a shady auction. Sechin was Rosneft's chairman. Since then the Kremlin strategist has been looking for ways to secure his power and accumulated wealth beyond the end of Putin's constitutionally limited term in office in March 2008. Sechin's close associates insist that Sechin, who holds a degree in Romance languages, is motivated by the concern that things could fall apart in Moscow, much as they did at Rome's downfall, when Putin leaves office. Sechin is said to consider the two potential successors Putin favors -- Deputy Premier Dimitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov -- incapable of holding Russia together in the future.

But perhaps the whole thing is far less complicated after all. The head of influential radio station Echo Moskvy -- who has good connections with the Kremlin normally shies away from inciting panic -- sees "Latin American-style death squads" at work in his country, groups he believes "could consist of former intelligence agents and veterans of the Chechnya and Afghanistan wars." If he's right, Russia is on its way to becoming a banana republic, perhaps not unlike El Salvador in the 1970s. Under that theory, Putin has completely lost control over what happens in his country.

ERICH FOLLATH, VERONIKA HACKENBROCH, HANS HOYNG, THOMAS HÜETLIN, UWE KLUSSMANN, CHRISTIAN NEEF, JAN PUHL, MATTHIAS SCHEPP

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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