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Will Putin Be Next?

After the murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and ex-KGB colonel Alexander Litvinenko, who will be next?

December 5, 2006

After the murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and ex-KGB colonel Alexander Litvinenko, who will be next?

When Vladimir Putin became Russia's president, he surrounded himself with former uniformed officers from the extensive Soviet security apparatus — the so-called "siloviki."

The drift and lawlessness of the early post-communist era are over, he proclaimed. Russia will now have a new, solid political apparatus — and state power will be strengthened.

Under former president Boris Yeltsin, bankers, entrepreneurs, politicians and bureaucrats had been murdered by professional hit men with alarming regularity. Almost none of the killings was ever solved. So, when Putin promised to put an end to "Wild East" capitalism, most Russians breathed a sigh of relief.

But now, the killings are back, more frequent than before and with an ominous new twist. Their targets are now much more prominent, making headlines not only in Russia, but all over the world: Anna Politkovskaya, crusading journalist — and Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-KGB colonel and staunch Putin critic.

Now, there is news of Yegor Gaidar, a former prime minister and economic reformer, falling victim to an apparent poisoning attempt on a trip to Ireland.

The only thing that is clear at this juncture is that the stability, clarity and rational state control that Putin had promised to bring to Russia has not materialized. The authorities never seem able to solve any of those crimes satisfactorily, giving rise to a non-stop rumor mill and growing fear.

The Russian Internet and Moscow kitchens are abuzz with speculation of who is responsible and why. Was it Vladimir Putin, wanting to eliminate his most outspoken opponents? Was it somebody in his entourage who was either trying to please or to discredit him? After all, Politkovskaya was killed on October 7 — Putin's 54th birthday.

Was it exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, trying to cast the blame on Putin? Was it Russian security forces trying to cast the blame on Berezovksy? Was it the CIA? Was it somebody else entirely, for personal reasons of their own?

As implausible as it sounds, some in the West — so accustomed to a Russian leader whose face often seems a picture of innocence — believe it could be Putin himself who stands behind at least some of the more prominent murders of his critics.

They acknowledge, of course, that the murders harm his reputation — and cast a shadow on Russia. Asked for an explanation, they point to the old parable about the scorpion and the frog.

The frog agrees to take the scorpion across the river. As it carries the scorpion on its back, it feels a sharp sting.

"You fool," it cries out. "You've stung me. Now I'm going to die — and you will drown. Why did you do it?"
"It's my nature," shrugged the scorpion.

According to this view, it is Putin's nature, too. After all, he was trained in the cloak-and-dagger arts of the Soviet KGB, which was notorious for eliminating its opponents — for example getting Leon Trotsky killed in Mexico in 1940.

Those people who suspect Putin point also to the strange death of Anatoly Sobchak, the former mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin's early patron, during the presidential election campaign in 2000. In that case, too, poisoning was rumored.

If Putin, his men or rogue security operatives are indeed behind this new murder spree, it would be bad enough. But even worse is that nobody really knows the truth — and probably will never find out. Russia has always been complex, opaque and Byzantine — and now, under the veneer of political stability, really strange things are starting to cook up.

In fact, while the big question is "Who Will Be Next?", there are those who would not be surprised if one day soon Putin himself wakes up with a dagger in his back — or collapses after eating a cheerful meal in the company of his closest associates.

That's an indication of just how bad things have gotten in Russia. In retrospect, the Soviet era — which always seemed so cloak-and-dagger — by comparison almost seems to have been driven by rational acts.

For all its faults, the country's elites were still focused on matters such as education and science — in an effort to build a future for the Soviet Union even against the long odds given the backward economic system.

In contrast, the country's elites these days seem primarily focused on getting their hands on whatever assets they can to enrich themselves privately and grotesquely — even if that means they are eating the country's seed corn and destroying its future as a functioning society.

While the country "produces" billionaires and millionaires galore, it is evident to all that next to nothing is done to invest for the future — even in the energy arena, the field that is most critical for Russia’s long-term survival.

From how it looks at this stage, most Russian elites — no longer focused on education, science and culture — don't worry about that.

In their minds, they seem to believe they will all be shipped out to villas at the Cote d'Azur and live the charmed life of true robber barons, their country of birth be damned.

Truth be told, this kind of self-destruction and exploitation of the rest of society is probably a late effect of the destructiveness and recklessness harbored in the Soviet system. But while that insight may explain part of the current occurrences, it does not excuse them.

A history of assassination has plagued Russia, including the order by Stalin to murder his former comrade Sergei Kirov, who was gaining too much popularity. He was killed by one bullet to the back of the head in 1934. Kirov’s murder led to many more during Stalin’s reign — with about 30,000 sent to concentration camps.

Concerning Putin and the current series of curious murders, it is useful to remember that, while his Russia has been compared to a newly emerging Russian Empire with him as czar, medieval Rome is probably a better comparison.

There too, various people, including quite a few Pontiffs, regularly ended up dead for no apparent reason. Even centuries later, historians have not been able to figure out why.