Behind the assassins, the grim truth of Putin’s Russia

(The Observer) A former Russian intelligence agent is poisoned with a radioactive substance. He is a crony of Russian businessmen in London, men who got rich in Moscow under the lawless presidency of Boris Yeltsin. They are sworn enemies of Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin. Alexander Litvinenko lived dangerously and died mysteriously.

That is where facts end and speculation begins. Because the crime happened in democratic Britain, the public genuinely hopes police might solve it. Had it happened in Moscow, the response would be different: weary acceptance that the case is unfathomable. In Russia, audacious public assassination is a familiar story. Businessmen, politicians and journalists regularly meet such a fate (although usually they are gunned down, not poisoned with radiation). The crimes go unsolved. The truth is lost in conspiracy theories.

Mr Litvinenko’s murder is an outbreak in the London diaspora of a disease that is rife in the motherland and there isn’t much hope of it being solved. But while the police do their best, it is a moment for Britain to look eastwards and ask what sort of a country Russia has become. The answer is: ‘Grim.’ The rule of law in Russia is weak; justice is applied selectively to serve political and commercial interests.

Television networks are controlled by the Kremlin. Exercising free speech can be perilous. Journalists risk prison or death if they are too critical of the authorities. Parliament is supine. Independent political activity is stifled. State media promote a neo-Soviet cult of state power and xenophobia. Racist violence is out of control. Last year, at least 28 people were murdered and 366 assaulted on racial grounds. Non-whites live in fear of skinhead gangs.

Internationally, Moscow uses its natural resources to compromise the independence of neighbouring states, threatening to turn off the taps if it suspects former Soviet satellites of disloyalty. Foreign companies working in Russia fear arbitrary expropriation of their assets and extortion by corrupt bureaucrats.

President Putin is genuinely popular with many Russians. He has brought stability while high energy prices have subsidised rising living standards. But the brutish cynicism that made Russian streets dangerous in the capitalist free-for-all of the Yeltsin years has been concealed, not eliminated, by Mr Putin’s bullying state….