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Russia on Trial

David Satter

With the British demand that Andrei Lugovoi be extradited to face charges for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the first steps have been taken toward justice. More is at stake in this case, however, than the fate of one man. The brazen murder of Litvinenko is a test of international society’s willingness to defend its most fundamental principles.

Until now, Russian authorities have reacted to allegations that the Federal Security Service (FSB) was behind the murder of Litvinenko with outraged innocence. The reaction was similar to the Soviet reaction after the murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgy Markov in London in 1977. It was also reminiscent of the way spokesmen denied Russian involvement in the murder of former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in Qatar in 2004 — unaware that Russian agents had been captured on videotape mining Yandarbiev’s car.

Denials and stonewalling are now no longer enough. The Russian Constitution bars the extradition of Russian citizens; but Russia signed the Council of Europe Extradition Convention in 2001, and the Russian Federation signed a memo of understanding with the British Crown Prosecution Service in November 2006 covering legal cooperation, including extradition. If Russia will not extradite Mr. Lugovoi, it should be pressed to try him at home in a manner that meets international standards.

Relations between Russia and the West are growing more troubled. Russia should be a firm ally, concerned to balance Chinese strength, guard against Islamic terrorism and prevent the emergence of nuclear powers on its borders. Instead Russia has emerged as a danger in its own right, intent on increasing its influence in the world by dominating its immediate neighbors in a manner that is antithetical to Western values.

The key to the situation is corruption. Russian officials run the biggest companies, controlling, according to some estimate, financial flows from assets that account for 80% of the capitalization of the Russian stock market. Persons and institutions challenging this oligarchy’s hold on power have been steadily eliminated.

To distract attention from this situation, Russian leaders insist on Russia’s “right” to dominate the nations that emerged from the Soviet Union and — to a degree — the Warsaw Pact, and to pursue its “great power” interests in a manner that pays little heed to the security needs of the West. Russia reacted with hysteria to the removal of the Soviet war memorial in Tallinn, although the bodies of Soviet World War II soldiers still lie unburied in Russia 60 years after the end of the war. Russia backs secession for Abkhazia and South Ossetia but not for Chechnya, and is concerned about U.S. anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic but not the nuclear development of North Korea and Iran.

The domination of post-Soviet Russia by a corrupt bureaucracy dates back to Boris Yeltsin’s illegal dissolution of the Russian parliament in 1993 in a struggle over the spoils of privatization. Yeltsin, however, was beholden to the West and needed Western aid. Under Vladimir Putin, however, oil prices increased from $9 a barrel in 1998 to as much as $78.

The West now is obliged to contend with irrational Russian policies regarding to U.S. plans for a defensive anti-missile system in Eastern Europe as well as regarding Iran, North Korea, Georgia, Ukraine, and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. In every case, what is involved is not national interest but protecting the ruling Russian oligarchy’s monopoly of money and power. Under these circumstances, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a British subject killed on British soil, is most likely another instance of Russia’s confidence that it can act with impunity.

In the months since Litvinenko’s death, Russian spokesmen have spared no effort in vilifying him and ridiculing the West’s interest in his fate. Sergei Ivanov, a deputy prime minister and a leading candidate to succeed Mr. Putin, said Litvinenko had a “low intellect” and was inclined to provocation: “For us Litvinenko was a nobody.” In a film about him on the NTV television network, “Litvinenko: a Very British Murder,” he was accused of stealing money from his first wife’s purse before leaving her. In an interview in the Russian newspaper, Izvestiya, Andrei Lugovoy answered a question about requests for him to go to London for questioning by saying, “Why, should I drop everything and rush off to England?”

Russians — both officials and ordinary citizens — were actually certain that the Litvinenko case would disappear, as have so many cases of persons murdered for political opposition within Russia itself. For this reason, above all, the West needs to be resolute. The pursuit of justice in this case is a vital way to limit the Russian tendency to live once again in a world of illusions, a bad habit left over from the delirium of the Soviet Union that promises nothing good in a world that needs decent values above all else.

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