Byline: KEITH DOVKANTS
ALEXANDER LITVINENKO was a good spy, but not a famous one. He worked in the shadows and only achieved a brief fame when he defected to Britain.
Now, as his life hangs by a thread in a London hospital, it is suggested he was the victim of an assassination attempt by the Kremlin. The notion has prompted disdain in certain quarters.
Why, it is asked, would President Vladimir Putin stoop to murder a former middleranking secret agent?
The answer may lie in a tape recording made by 44-year-old Litvinenko before he fell victim to his would-be assassin. The tape, which has been handed to the British security service, contains allegations about President Putin, his regime and even his sexual predilections.
It talks of officially sanctioned murders, dirty tricks and a Kremlin-inspired plot to steal Russia's biggest oil company. Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club, features in one section. The Evening Standard has acquired a transcript of the tape and although Litvinenko's allegations cannot be proved, the very fact that someone, somewhere wanted to silence him lends his story credibility. Alexander Litvinenko, it seems, was the spy who knew too much.
Now, as doctors continue the fight to save his life, an attempted murder inquiry has become a counterespionage operation. The suspicion that a foreign power and ostensible ally has ordered the murder of a man given British citizenship and safe haven has blown a chilly blast of the Cold War through London's corridors of power.
Litvinenko's proposition is a straightforward one, although the plots he cites are labyrinthine. According to him, Putin presided over a murderous and corrupt regime as head of the FSB, Russia's security apparatus and successor to the KGB. When Putin became president, he says, the extrajudicial killings and frame-ups continued.
One of the most sensational allegations on Litvinenko's tape concerns a sting operation allegedly mounted against the president. It was linked, he says, to the case of Yuri Skuratov, Russia's prosecutor general in the dying days of Boris Yeltsin's government.
Skuratov was the Kremlin's charismatic chief law officer who had launched a major campaign against corruption. His supporters say he was concerned that Russia's wealth was being distributed among a small group of oligarchs in sweetheart deals organised by Yeltsin and his family. Skuratov singled out Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko for special attention.
His investigators claimed her links to oligarchs including Boris Berezovsky and
especially the young Roman Abramovich, allowed favourable terms to be accorded these businessmen in their dealings with the Kremlin over state assets.
Abramovich has never denied his friendship with Tatyana. He once bought her a yacht. Neither has he denied acquiring, for a fraction of theirworth, Russian oil assets he later sold for [pounds sterling]7 billion. But Abramovich has never spoken about Skuratov. Indeed, the mere mention of the former law chief 's name is ill-advised in certain circles.
The reason, as Litvinenko says on his tape, is that Skuratov became a laughing stock after being comprehensively destroyed in a dirty tricks operation. It was carried out in a comfortably furnished flat in Moscow's Polyanka Street when a government official invited Skuratov to relax after a hard day at the prosecutor's office. To this day, no one knows what really happened, but a video showing someone who certainly looked like Skuratov in bed with two young women, found its way on to prime time television.
HE SAID it was an attempt to blackmail him. The Russian parliament and a number of law officers agreed. But he was forced from his position, and the investigation into Yeltsin's daughter quietly ended. Vladimir Putin, the head of the security services and Yeltsin's choice for president, said it was clear to him that the video was genuine and it showed Skuratov "in person". …