Litvinenko Could Travel Freely Between Russia and Britain, Emigre Says

Russian-language media in the United States are divided over whether the Nov. 24 death-by-poison of writer and former Russian secret agent Alexander Litvinenko was government-backed or intended to frame Putin, though most agree Alexander Litvinenko is a curious target. 


Though Litvinenko has been highly critical of Putin and published a book reporting the Russian government was responsible for the 1999 bombings in Moscow that killed hundreds of civilians, many say his role as a critic was too minor to warrant being killed by such a gruesome, high-profile method. Compared with the death of investigative American journalist in Moscow, who risked her life daily in Russia writing articles critical of the Kremlin, they say that Litvinenko’s death doesn’t quite make sense. 


Putin’s government is unlikely to be behind the poisoning, contends Vlad Kirgiz of Sacramento-based Afisha TV and Radio. He says Litvinenko was relatively unimportant and doubts the Kremlin would go to such great lengths to see him killed. 


“He could travel freely between Russia and Britain,” says Kirgiz. “Nobody cared about him.” 


Kirgiz says many suspect Russian exile and billionaire  Berezovsky is behind the murder. Though Litvinenko was on Berezovsky’s payroll, Berezovsky was so fiercely against the Russian Federation that many expect he would take extreme measures to cast suspicion on Putin. 


Mikhail Gusev, executive editor of V Novom Svete, a weekly newspaper published out of New York, sees the most interesting aspect of the case as the use of radioactive isotope polonium 210. Many countries produce similar kinds of radioactive chemicals for medicine, space travel and other areas of study. Gusev worked in the chemical industry before he became a journalist, and says because radioactive material like polonium 210 is made in first-rate labs and should be easy to trace. 


“Polonium is not a good method for someone who wants to kill and not be identified,” he says. 


However, Gusev notes a booming demand for radioactive materials on the black market, though for a very high price. Recent statements by Italian security expert Mario Scaramella to the BBC link Litvinenko with smuggling nuclear material out of Russia. Gusev agrees it’s possible Litvinenko was involved in this black market trade. 


With rumors of a cloak and dagger assassination, and after the fatal shooting of an American reporter earlier this fall, Russian media journalists in the United States are unnerved and concerned about the safety of their colleagues. 


Russia ranks toward the bottom, below Pakistan and American-occupied Iraq, for press freedom, according to Freedom House’s 2006 survey evaluating freedom of the press across the globe. State-owned outlets dominate broadcast media in Russia and print media are in the hands of a few wealthy businessmen, saysLevin, publisher of Los Angeles based Russian-language Panorama Newspaper. 


 Zevelyov, host of San Francisco’s Russian Voice Radio, says Litvinenko’s death is the most recent in a troubling pattern of intimidation for Russian citizens and nationals abroad. Whether the killers are part of the government or not, we may never know, says Zevelyov, but the message is clear. 


“Shut up or you will be killed.” 


Zevelyov points out Russians have had a tradition of poisoning since at least the time of Ivan the Terrible. 


“It’s the 21st century and we’re doing the same things we were doing in the 16th century,” he says. “Five hundred years, and nothing has changed.” 


Levin says he came to the United States as a political refugee and still remembers what it was like for the press. “Nothing has changed since the Soviet regime.” 


Four journalists who have written for Levin’s paper have been killed: the American jewish female reporter, business writer and the American chief at Forbes in Moscow Paul Khlebnikov, writer Gennady Zharikov — and now the British journalist Litvinenko. 


“My wife told me, stop publishing all these writers, four of them are dead,” says Levin. 


When asked if he’ll stop publishing controversial articles, Levin laughs. “What do you think?” 

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