Mourning Alexander Litvinenko

A year on, Ivar Amundsen remembers his friend Alexander Litvinenko and reflects on the ruthlessness

It is a year since the death of my friend Alexander Litvinenko, a year since I sat at his bedside as his condition deteriorated rapidly under the affects of the Polonium contaminating his body.

His death was devastating for his family, not least his wife Marina and father Walter who have campaigned fearlessly for his killers to be brought to justice.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the appalling personal consequences of Sasha’s death for his wife and young son in London have been lost in the ensuing narrative invoking the intrigue and espionage of a modern day spy-thriller.

Away from the headlines however, there is a cold fact which purveys this story - the Russian state will go to any lengths to silence its critics and political opponents both inside Russia and abroad.

A month ago we commemorated the death of Anna Politkovskaya who, like Sasha, dared to speak out against the Putin regime and died as a result. Since Putin came to power 15 of Anna’s colleagues have also been killed by contract killers. In 2006 alone, according to the not for profit pressure group Glasnost Defence Foundation there were 63 assaults on journalists, 25 incidents of intimidation, and 12 attacks on editorial offices.

But it is at the South West edge of the country where the Kremlin’s most devastating actions take place. A semblance of stability may have been restored to Grozny but Putin’s brutal Chechnya legacy and his current stance on the region mark his entire reign as Russian President. Chechnya has shaped President Putin and modern Russia. Alexander Litvinenko was pivotal in exposing the indelible link between Putin’s rise to power and his at best opportunistic and at worst political instigation of the second Chechen War. He thought he would be safe to voice such opinion in London, history has shown he wasn’t.

The last year has seen the UK’s relations with Russia apparently plummet to a post cold war low even though trade and direct foreign investment between Russia and the UK is still flourishing. While the cash keeps flowing and the diplomatic tensions continue the reality on the ground for Russians and the expanding Russian Diaspora is that there is no safe place for dissident voices.

This reality was underpinned in 2006 with the Russian Parliament’s approval of a law to permit extra-judicial killings of individuals accused of ‘extremism’. The law and its safe passage through parliament highlight the level to which the legislature, like the media and armed forces, have been co-opted into Putin’s direct circle of influence. In a telling aspect of the new law, it is the Premiere himself and he alone who can permit the extra-judicial killings and he has no obligation to consult the Federation Council.

The idea propagated by Putin that he has put an end to gangster capitalism and the random use of violence in Russia is a myth.

The mantra of ‘Russian democracy’: gradual economic and social development through quasi-authoritarianism is a smokescreen. Russia today is an incredibly dangerous and oppressive place. Corruption is endemic and political violence is widespread.

As well as the FSB, Russia’s official state security agency, Putin’s inner circle , the siloviki, have also created a further deadly apparatus for enforcing their authority and political power. Nashi, a pro-Putin youth movement, encapsulates the rise in organised political violence in Russia and signals the transition of a previously anarchic and disenfranchised youth under Yeltsin to a controlled and indoctrinated youth under Putin – exploited by him as a tool of oppression.

To term Russia a fascist state is problematic but the xenophobia instilled in Nashi’s 100,000 plus members and their willingness and propensity to use violence to quell opposition to Putin is utterly fascistic in character.

Evidence of Putin’s brutal rule and his government’s actions both towards its own ethnic population and that of the autonomous regions in the Caucuses are vast and ranging in integrity. But even the most conservative figures are a devastating indictment of his seven year Presidency.

Jane’s Information Group put the death toll for Russian soldiers in the second Chechen War at 9 to 11 thousand men (other reputable groups have put that number as high as 40 thousand). To put that in perspective, Britain has lost just 84 servicemen in Afghanistan, a tragic loss but miniscule in comparison to the number of young men Russia has lost over the last 7 years. On the Chechen side the numbers are obscene with those killed or displaced by the conflict in the hundreds of thousands.

Putin has been successful in internalising the Chechen crisis and portraying it as Russia’s front in the ‘war on terror.’ Yet the Chechen conflict is hugely nuanced and deeply rooted in nationalism. It is worth remembering that Putin’s soldiers and bombs rolled in over Grozny over a year before that terrible day in New York and the beginning of the struggle with global terrorism.

Putin instigated and exploited the war in Chechnya to elevate his standing as a strong man and a protector of the Russian state. His current strategy, of ‘Chechenising’ the conflict by installing his own strong man in the form of Ramzan Kadyrov as overlord of Chechnya has been hugely successful politically but fatal for Chechnya’s beleaguered inhabitants.

Infrastructure development and stability on the streets of urban centres such as Grozny may be evident but Chechnya is still in crisis. Few analysts would be brave enough to bet against a return to significant military conflict and mass bloodshed in the coming years.

And so Russia continues on. The killing of Alexander Litvinenko is not unique but we cannot let it go unpunished. The Public Prosecution Service felt they had enough evidence in May of this year to charge Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of Alexander. The subsequent extradition process has been utterly ineffectual with Russia refusing point blank to sanction the move.

This may be completely unsurprising but we must continue to press for Mr Lugovoi to be tried. The current Brown government’s step to expel several high-level Russian diplomats from London in the face of Russian intransigence over the case was encouraging but we must persevere.

We do not know if Lugovoi is guilty but Britain must stand up and press for the trial of a man who allegedly killed a British resident on British soil. The Putin regime must be sent more than simply a rhetorical message that extra-judicial killing is utterly unacceptable and that firm action will be taken to counter it. As for Putin’s actions within Russia we must continue to campaign for human rights and political freedom and for a genuine resolution to the appalling situation in Chechnya.

Ivar Amundsen is Director of the Chechnya Peace Forum, a not for profit campaign group which fights for human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Chechnya, The Caucuses and Russia.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496