Moscow revives long and bloody history of silencing its enemies

1139.jpgRussian exiles have always feared that the Kremlin would try to silence them, wherever they were living. They cite the murder of Trotsky in Mexico, when a hitman sent by Stalin plunged an icepick into his head, and mysterious killings by Soviet agents in communist times. In the past year their fears have had solid legal grounds.

Twelve months ago the Duma passed a law allowing Russian security agents to pursue “terrorists” overseas and to kill them if they were deemed a threat. The clear aim was to kill Chechen fighters who had sought refuge in neighbouring countries. But the law also allowed the FSB, the successor to the KGB, to resume a practice that had been officially halted since the disbandment of an organisation (well known to James Bond readers) called Smersh, an acronym for Death to Spies, that was set up by the Soviet Union to hunt down and destroy its enemies around the world.

In 2005 Vladimir Kryuchkov, the former head of the KGB, claimed in an interview that such practices had ended long ago, and that the secret services had not killed an enemy on foreign soil since the 1959 assassination in Munich of the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. The record suggests otherwise.

Two Russian agents were arrested in Qatar in February 2004 after the assassination of Zelinkhan Yandarbiyev, a Chechen rebel leader who had lived in exile in Doha for three years. An explosion that blew apart his car also killed two bodyguards and seriously injured his 13-year-old son. Russia had been trying, without success, to have him extradited for a year.

 

The Chechen wars have clearly been the spur to pursuing “terrorists”, both at home and abroad. Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen President during the second Chechen war, was killed by Russian agents.

Gunmen have also hunted down other critics of the Kremlin. An attempt was made to poison Anna Politkovskaya, the independent journalist who reported Russian abuses in Chechnya, and when that did not succeed she was shot dead last year. There are also strong suspicions that Russian security agents had a hand in the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian politician who campaigned on a strong anti-Moscow and pro-Western platform.

The culture of hunting down enemies was embedded in the KGB and lives on in the FSB and its sister agency, the SVR (which deals with intelligence overseas). Boris Berezovsky is clearly now seen in Moscow as a threat to national security. It is not only his links to Mr Zakayev thatanger the Kremlin but also his attempts to undermine President Putin.

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