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.