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Foreign Correspondent
by international syndicated columnist & broadcaster Eric Margolis


November 27, 2006

`You may succeed in silencing one man. But a howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.

May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me, but to beloved Russia and its people.’

Signed,    Alexander Litvinenko

Just who fatally poisoned former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko with the radioactive isotope Polonium-210 in London remains unknown, though his agonizing death last Thursday after a horrible illness strongly suggests the long arm of a reborn SMERSH has struck again.

Litvinenko had no doubts: he accused Russian President Vladmir Putin of giving the order to kill him. `Those bastards have got me’ he said on his deathbed.

SMERSH, an acronym for `Death to Spies,’ was created by the Soviets in the 1940’s to liquidate enemy agents and defectors. It reported directly to Stalin. SMERSH and the NKVD/KGB’s `Special Tasks’ unit also assassinated Ukrainian and Baltic nationalist leaders. A favorite SMERSH weapon was a pen device that fired a cloud of cyanide gas into the victim’s face that left no trace.

Soviet `wet affairs’ units often employed undetectable poisons developed by Moscow’s top secret `Lab X’ that made victims appear to have died from natural causes. Lab X was founded in 1937 and continues, as `Laboratory 12,’ to this day. CIA had its own version.

Ukraine’s nationalist leader Viktor Yushchenko, Chechen independence fighter Khattab, and now Litvinenko were all victims of untraceable poisons. Khattab reportedly died after reading a report printed on poisoned paper passed to him by Russian agents.

There are strong lingering suspicions that PLO’s late leader, Yasser Arafat, may also have been a victim of a similar untraceable toxin developed in Moscow and transferred by ex-Soviet scientists to the Mideast.

A Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, was poisoned in London in 1978 by means of an umbrella that drove a tiny poison bead containing the poison ricin into his leg.

The secret files of Bulgaria’s intelligence service - which often performed `wet affairs’ for KGB and remains under suspicion in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II – are shortly due to be opened. Three senior archivists of these files have `committed suicide,’ two recently.

Britain’s Scotland Yard has so far refused to categorize this obvious assassination as a murder, but will have to before long. It will also want to know how radioactive Polonium-210 was smuggled into Britain. This highly toxic isotope can only be produced by specialized nuclear reactors, and requires special containment and handling. Britain’s entry ports are guarded by radiation detectors that would have spotted the Polonium unless it was shielded by lead – or brought in to an embassy through a diplomatic pouch.

The Litvinenko affaire is incredibly murky and just as fascinating. To understand it, go back to 1989.

As the Soviet Union began crumbling, I was the first western journalist given access to KGB’s top brass, headquarters, and archives. `KGB is a powerful force behind modernization and reform,’ I reported from Moscow that year, adding that KGB’s best and brightest officers from the elite First Chief Directorate had decided to abandon the communists and seize control of business and government.

The First Directorate’s agents, including up-and-comer Vladimir Putin, were Russia’s best-educated, most sophisticated, and disciplined citizens. They knew communism had wrecked Russia. KGB chiefs told me in 1989 they wanted a `Russian Pinochet’ – a strongman who would bring in capitalism and make Russia and Russians work.

Today, two decades later, former KGB officers run the Kremlin, Russia’s government, and much of its industry. Russia got its tough General Pinochet in the form of the even tougher KGB officer, Vladimir Putin.

As the USSR collapsed, a group of sharp-minded financial opportunists called `oligarchs’ grabbed control of its industries and resources. Led by Boris Berezhovsky, they formed the core support for Boris Yeltsin’s stumbling regime - backed by huge amounts of covert US finance that was laundered through London and German banks. Another London-based Russian exile, billionaire Roman Abramovitch, has been accused by the British media of having been a conduit for this secret funding. He denies the charges.

KGB – divided in 1991 into the foreign SVR and internal FSB – viewed Berezovsky and other oligarchs as traitors and foreign agents. The fact that most of the oligarchs were Jewish intensified the animosity of the traditionally anti-Semitic Russians.

In 1991, the Chechen, a Muslim Caucasian mountain people who had battled Russian colonial rule for 300 years, demanded independence from Russia as had 14 of its other republics. Berezovsky backed their calls.

Three years later, Yelstin provoked a war against Chechnya and sent his army to crush its independence movement. Savage Russian bombing and shelling killed up to 100,000 Chechens. Part of this genocidal campaign was secretly financed by the Clinton Administration. President Clinton hailed Yeltsin as `the George Washington of Russia.’

In a military miracle, Chechen fighters defeated Russian forces in two years of bitter fighting and drove them out. In 1997, Yeltsin signed a peace treaty granting Chechnya independence.

But the `siloviki’ – Russia’s security and military apparatus – were outraged and vowed revenge. They kept insisting the Chechen were Islamic terrorists, and staged numerous provocations. Yeltsin was discredited as a drunken buffoon. At the end of 1999, he was ousted by a discreet coup that made then little-known prime minister, and former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, president of Russia.

During 1999, Moscow and a provincial city were racked by a series of apartment building bombings that killed 300 people. Panic swept Russia. The bombings were blamed on `Chechen Islamic terrorists.’ But Moscow police caught a team of FSB agents red handed planting explosives in a residential building. The agents claimed they were running a `security test.’

This awkward fact was hushed up. Prime Minister Putin called for total war `to wipe out Chechen terrorism’ and `kill them in their shithouses.’ Outraged Russians rallied behind Putin, giving him a huge electoral mandate in 2000 that amounted to one-man rule. After Moscow stage-managed a fake Chechen `invasion’ of neighboring Dagestan, Putin sent his army to invade, re-conquer Chechnya, and `stamp out Islamic terrorism.’

The parallels to the 9/11 attacks on American a year later were uncanny.

Lt. Col. Alexander Litvinenko wrote a book about the apartment bombings and claimed his own agency, FSB, was behind them. The book was financed by Berezhovsky, who had emerged as Putin’s principal rival for power. In 1998, Litvinenko publicly claimed the secret police planned to kill Berezovsky.

Litvinenko was jailed, then fled into exile in Britain. Berezovsky was charged with fraud in Russia. He later followed Litvinenko into exile in London where he continues plotting to overthrow Putin.

Shortly before Litvinenko was poisoned, he was investigating last month’s murder in Moscow of crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. She had courageously exposed Russian criminality and rights abuses in Chechnya, which she boldly blamed on Putin and his entourage. Politkovskaya told me she was marked for death by `silovoki’ and Russian gangsters.

Litvinenko and Berezovsky loudly accused Putin of authoring Politkovskaya’s murder. The Kremlin strongly denied any involvement, or in Litvinenko’s poisoning.

Both crimes have further damaged Russia’s image, and tarnished President Putin’s carefully cultivated image as a strong but law-abiding leader. Yet one must wonder why the Kremlin would risk igniting such a storm to silence a minor figure whose accusations went largely unheeded.

The apartment bombing story was central to Putin’s rise to supreme power. Anyone who raised questions about the bombings was sure to incur the Kremlin’s wrath. But these more than a decade-old crimes have been forgotten or purposely ignored in the race to do business with energy-rich Russia.

In 1981, the western powers similarly shied away from following the evidence trail over the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, which pointed to Moscow via Bulgaria. Accusing Moscow of a major crime was just too inconvenient. And besides, if Moscow was found guilty, what could the west do about it except huff and puff?

Perhaps thin-skinned officials in Moscow reverted to old Soviet ways by dispatching the `Smershniki.’ The Kremlin blames a feud among Russian exiles. But the blood spots connect right to Moscow. One feels a chilly breeze from the days of the Cold War.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2006.

Published at since 1995 with permission, as a courtesy and in appreciation.

To read previous columns by Mr. Margolis: Click here

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