What Lies Behind the Rash of Russian Poisonings?

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Russians learned Thursday that former prime minister Yegor Gaidar, the mastermind of Russia's early 1990s "shock therapy" economic reform, was poisoned last Friday in Dublin. Irish doctors managed to save Gaidar from what he now calls "a threat to my life." The doctors appear to have established that the affliction that caused Gaidar's nosebleeds and violent vomiting was no routine case of food poisoning, and are waiting for the results of forensic tests to determine the cause of an illness for which they could find no conventional explanation. Even President Vladimir Putin called to offer Gaidar his sympathies.

Coming in the wake of the recent killings of former KGB man Alexander Litvinenko in London and of journalist Ana Politkovskaya in Moscow, Gaidar's episode suggests that Russian political life may be reacquiring some traditional dark patterns. All of the incidents, after all, are taking place against the backdrop of the start of a fierce struggle over who will succeed Putin, whose second (and constitutionally mandated last) term as president will end in 17 months.

Russia's electoral system has, of course, been turned into a sham: Independent candidates are not allowed; only those on party lists can compete for seats in the Duma. And all the parties that have not been squeezed out of existence are rigidly controlled by the Kremlin. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Kremlin has also scrapped the minimum turnout requirement to validate the election, to eliminate staying away as a means of sabotaging the stage-managed poll. Everything would seem to be under control. But, the big intrigue remains: Who will be Putin's heir, appointed if not anointed, just as Putin was when he succeeded Boris Yeltsin in 1999.

A powerful Kremlin faction wants the Boss to stay, insisting that the country needs him. Their real motivation, however, is the fear that anyone they appoint as a figurehead will inevitably claim the powers of the throne for real — just as Putin did. Although Putin delivered on the presumed promise of never touching the Yeltsin family, many a Yeltsin flunky lost his assets. The Kremlin power brokers want to prevent a repeat.

Putin has said repeatedly he respects the constitution that requires him to step down. But changing the constitution's two-term limit on the presidency requires only a vote by two-thirds of the heavily controlled Duma, and two-thirds of the heavily controlled Federation Council (upper house) and a similar margin of votes by regional governors, all appointed by the Kremlin. Putin, presumably, will respect any such revisions to the Constitution, too.

Even the deaths of prominent Russians at home and abroad is being twisted to reinforce an argument that there is an enemy out there looking to hurt Russia, and that Putin's vigilance remains indispensable.

Anatoly Chubais, Gaidar's fellow reformer of the '90s and now head of Russia's electricity monopoly, sees a link between Gaidar's illness and murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Litvinenko. "The deadly triangle — Politkovskaya, Litvinenko and Gaidar — would have been quite desirable for some people who are seeking an unconstitutional and forceful change of power of Russia," Chubais said, hastening to disclaim any state's involvement. Hence, the Russian media interpreted his statement as a hint at the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, once Putin's key ally, now an exile in London, who has been accused by Putin supporters of having Politkovskaya and Litvinenko murdered in order to compromise and weaken Putin. Stalin, we should remember, was well served by having his nemesis Trotsky in foreign exile, where even after he was killed by Stalin's agents, he was typically blamed for all political crimes — many of them committed by Stalin and his henchmen.

Whatever the agenda of those behind the killings, the effect may be more devastating than they intend. Says former KGB General and now a dissenting Duma member Alexei Kondaurov: "The Litvinenko murder landmarks the precedent of nuclear terrorism. Unless it is resolved, terrorists of any mettle will know they can get away with it." Putin's failure to help resolve that crime will also further institutionalize violence as a tool of political struggle, he believes. "Then, both the state, factions within the state, and opposition forces will habitually resort to murder as a political expediency. This will smash the country to smithereens."

Gaidar's poisoning after the Politkovskaya-Litvinenko murders adds to gloomy apprehensions. The political atmosphere in Moscow is becoming increasingly fraught with tension as the next round of elections draws near. Until the country has resolved its political succession, few are expecting a respite from such strange and ugly events.