By Steven Lee Meyers
International Herald Tribune
May 27, 2007
MOSCOW: From the day Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer, died of polonium poisoning in London last November, officials in Russia treated the investigation of his death as if it were simply a matter of bad public relations. They dismissed accusations of Russian involvement as nonsense fabricated by President Vladimir Putin’s enemies.
Last week, Britain punctured Russia’s strategy. A decision by the Crown Prosecution Service to accuse another former KGB officer of the murder and demand his extradition pushed Russia out of the international court of public opinion and into the international court of law.
If recent history is any guide, Russia will not fare well, and the consequences could be profound, deepening the political, diplomatic and social rift between Russia and its European neighbors. In proceeding after proceeding, Russia’s actions have withered under the scrutiny of international justice. As a result, the very concepts of law and justice have become touchstones for larger fears about how Putin amasses and uses power, and whether he is returning Russia to habits that brought Europe grief in the past.
The implicit criticism in these proceedings has profoundly irritated Putin’s Kremlin, and that defensiveness has, in turn, only further disappointed those in the West who once hoped Russia would emerge from the Soviet collapse as a member in good standing of the club of democratic, law-abiding nations.
In Putin’s seven years as president, a Soviet-style cynicism about the law has returned, one in which justice, like diplomacy, is simply a series of political calculations laced with ulterior motives, as opposed to a dispassionate search for truth, fairness and accountability.
That cynicism has been a hallmark of Putin’s presidency, allowing him to consolidate power by using the law to weaken the media, marginalize opposition parties and imprison political enemies. It is now being used to paint Britain as wielding its judicial system in Litvinenko’s murder in the same way Russia often wields its own – manipulating the law for political ends.
On Thursday, Putin suggested that criticism of Russia’s record on democracy and human rights was just an effort by the West to make Russia give ground on a host of international disputes, from Iran to missile defenses to independence for Kosovo.
“One of the aims is to make Russia more pliable on issues that have nothing to do with democracy or human rights,” he said while visiting Luxembourg.
This is at the heart of what bothers many in the West about Putin’s Russia. Rather than embrace the common legal values that united Europe after the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Putin shuns them as weapons intended to weaken Russia.
Take, for example, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the judicial body of the Council of Europe, which Moscow joined in 1996. It has become a court of last resort for Russians seeking justice and compensation for abuses, usually at the hands of the police or military.
In 2006, Russians filed 10,569 cases, 22 percent of the court’s caseload. Nearly half were found inadmissible, but the court found against the Russian authorities in 102 cases that year.
Increasingly, Moscow is showing signs of impatience. Its Parliament has refused to ratify a new charter intended to streamline the court’s work, blocking changes Russia agreed to in 2004 (before it started losing so many cases). In January, Putin criticized “the politicization of court rulings.”
On Tuesday, Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, filed a complaint with the court over Russia’s handling of her husband’s death, a murder that has sent a chilling message to the community of Putin critics in London and elsewhere that exile might not protect them from retribution.
In the Litvinenko case, Russia swiftly restated its refusal to extradite the accused suspect, Andrei Lugovoi. (Lugovoi has denied any involvement.) The Russian Constitution forbids the extradition of citizens, but Britain preemptively emphasized Russia’s international commitments, including a 1957 convention on extradition and an agreement between prosecutors from both countries (signed only days before Litvinenko died) to cooperate “in the sphere of extradition.”
Britain’s decision put Russia on the spot, which is where Putin loathes to be. Already, politicians and the state media here have been stoking anti-Western nationalism.
The Kremlin and the prosecutor’s office here said that Russia’s own parallel investigation into the Litvinenko case – or what it called the attempted murder by poisoning of Lugovoi and an associate, Dmitri Kovtun – was continuing. From the start, though, its focus has been less on Lugovoi than on the exiled Russians who many here have suggested orchestrated the poisoning to discredit Russia.
Russia’s problem is that few, here or abroad, have much faith in the impartiality of its justice. Its prosecutors have repeatedly failed to persuade European governments to arrest and extradite suspects fleeing Russian charges. These include several of Litvinenko’s associates, notably Boris Berezovsky, the tycoon who is Public Enemy No. 1 here, and Akhmed Zakayev, a leader of Chechen separatists. They may or may not have committed crimes, but in Russia, there would be little doubt of their convictions.
Ole Solvang, executive director of the Stichting Russian Justice Initiative, a nonprofit group that helps Russians file suit in Strasbourg, said that in Russia’s courts and prosecutors’ offices, “There are still significant problems: There are still instances where judges and prosecutors try to guess what decision is politically the right one.”
Tellingly, political motivations were what a commentator for the official Russian Information Agency, Vladimir Simonov, saw in Britain’s latest decision. He explained them as a political maneuver by Tony Blair as he hands over power to Gordon Brown. “The political aspects of the charges are glaringly obvious,” he wrote. “It is very likely that the prime minister deliberately put his political heir in a situation where the latter would have to formulate his policy toward Russia under the strain of current tensions between the two countries.”
Most British would no doubt scoff. By the same standard, one could also ask: What does Litvinenko’s case presage for Russia’s presidential election next March?