Earlier this week, four Russian diplomats were expelled from London in response to Russia’s refusal to extradite former FSB officer Andrei Lugovoi, suspected of murdering Alexander Litvinenko. A program aimed at simplifying visa-issuing procedures was suspended. On Wednesday, July 18, Boris Berezovsky related in interviews with British and Russian media how an attempt on his life had been averted.
Berezovsky told Radio Liberty how friends in Moscow had warned him three months ago about a plot to murder him in London: an acquaintance from Moscow would go there, meet with Berezovsky, and simply kill him. This person “wouldn’t try to hide from police – he would explain his actions by claiming to have a business-related grudge against me,” said Berezovsky. The grudge and the criminal’s “honest confession” would ensure a lenient sentence – an initial 20 years would become 10 years with good behavior. Berezovsky explained the motives for the potential murder as follows: “He would be paid, his family would be paid – so he would be completely taken care of.”
The BBC reports that a suspect was arrested in London on June 21 and handed over to the immigration authorities two days later. According to Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal, MI5 and MI6 were involved in the operation. Most media reports say that the suspect was deported, but there has been no official confirmation of that from the British authorities.
The BBC quotes from The Sun, a London newspaper, which published its own account of how an assassination attempt on the Russian political emigre may have been organized.
According to the newspaper, a certain Russian citizen was supposed to be the hitman, and the murder was supposed to happen at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane. To avoid raising suspicion, the hired killer was meant to arrive at the hotel accompanied by a child; he would invite Berezovsky to meet with him in a hotel room and kill Berezovsky by shooting him in the head.
The Sun quotes a source as saying: “The Russian suspect was monitored attempting to buy obvious weaponry for the planned mission. Disturbingly, he was accompanied by a child in an attempt to blend into the background. This ‘family persona’ tactic is also thought to have been used in the murder of Litvinenko.”
Berezovsky assured the Kommersant newspaper that the forces behind the plot to kill him were the same forces that killed Litvinenko: “This is why Putin issued a decree last year authorizing the special services to carry out special operations abroad.” When Kommersant asked why the British police had released the presumed hitman, sending him out of the country, Berezovsky replied: “And if that person is innocent, why is he keeping silent rather than complaining loudly about Britain deporting an innocent person? This is further confirmation that the person was a criminal.”
Russian Ambassador to Britain Yuri Fedotov categorically denied allegations that Moscow was involved in the presumed murder attempt. “That is impossible,” he told the BBC. “Berezovsky takes every opportunity – including self-created opportunities – to draw attention to himself. He is linked to various criminal circles. He knows what kind of threats he faces.”
Berezovsky responded quickly to this statement. He told Radio Liberty: “Via my lawyers, I’m studying the possibility of a civil suit against Ambassador Yuri Fedotov for slander. The Ambassador is telling blatant lies, and has apparently received instructions from the Kremlin.”
Political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky says that the possibility of an attempt on Berezovsky’s life cannot be ruled out entirely. “The Russian authorities are not united, and their actions aren’t always logical or rational,” said Pribylovsky in an interview with Polit.ru. “The interests of a particular faction or agency might make it seem rational to eliminate Berezovsky. For example, the assassination of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev damaged Russia’s interests – but a particular faction within the Kremlin was still proud of it.”
But Pribylovsky also notes that “as a symbolic enemy, Boris Berezovsky is very important for the regime’s stability, just like the existence of the Devil is important for systems of religion. And since our sovereign democracy is essentially a system of religion, Berezovsky has an important place in it, as the father of all evil.”
Sergei Markov, director of the Political Studies Center, maintains that Berezovsky’s latest statements are nothing other than elements of a larger campaign against the Russian state.
“All of this powerful political campaign… is intended to portray the Kremlin leadership as brutal murderers,” Markov told Interfax, commenting on the Berezovsky assassination attempt reports. “This campaign has been fairly successful, mostly because there is no counter-campaign. The Russian authorities have restricted themselves to the domestic media, while entirely surrendering the battlefield in the world’s leading publications and non-governmental organizations.”
An example of this campaign can be found in the words of a senior government security source quoted by The Sun: “We cannot tolerate a situation where Russian hit squads can roam the streets of London trying to take out enemies of their regime. In the case of Litvinenko, the lives of hundreds of Londoners were put at risk by the use of a radioactive substance.”
In fact, the domestic media situation isn’t as uniform as it seems to Markov. In the Polit.ru interview, Pribylovsky commented on the crisis in Russian-British relations, emphasizing that the British government’s actions are only a response to public outrage. Britain does have some real leverage: Russian officials have bank accounts in the West, and the British Virgin Islands are a popular tax haven for the Russian elite. “But they don’t want to use the real leverage: they’re seeking to soothe public opinion, so they have chosen to expel some diplomats – a measure that Russia can use as well,” says Pribylovsky.
The Gazeta newspaper comments on the reasons for public outrage in Britain: “Despite being accused of murdering a British citizen, and presumably contaminating many public places in London with polonium, Andrei Lugovoi remains a free man and has practically become a national hero in Russia.”
Gazeta goes on to say: “This is the problem, not the Russian Constitution. The problem is that Russian intelligence agents who make their mark abroad are welcomed back to Russia as heroes – whether they kill Yandarbiyev in Qatar or fail on a mission in Georgia. The problem is that Lugovoi will never be brought to trial in Russia.”
Although the Lugovoi case is serious enough, Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal observer Alexander Goltz sees the Russian-British conflict as even more serious. In his opinion, this is essentially a conflict between two world-views: “One side knows that the law is what you make of it. If the big boss gives the order, we can convict a prosperous company of tax evasion, discover that it has violated environmental regulations, and send the owner to jail. The other side has a firm belief in the rule of law. This doesn’t mean that it never breaks the law – but it’s always aware that it is doing wrong or committing a crime. And in making the decision, it realizes that if it’s found out, punishment will be inevitable. For some, the law is a kind of higher value; for others, it’s no more than a tool for pursuing their own interests beneath the cover of the state’s needs.”
The Vedomosti newspaper proposes some measures for stopping the confrontation. Both sides should retract certain statements that are unacceptable, bordering on interference in another country’s internal affairs. Vedomosti calls for maximal openness in the Litvinenko murder investigation, enabling the public in both countries to see as much of the evidence as possible. According to Vedomosti, this is the only way to reduce tension and return this controversial case from the political dimension to the legal dimension.