Conspiracy theories on spy's death multiplying

December 08, 2006|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

MOSCOW -- The air here is so thick with speculation about the poisoning death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko that there are now conspiracy theories about the conspiracy theories.

First, a recap of the best, or worst, of them:

Litvinenko was killed by the Kremlin.

Litvinenko was killed by someone who wanted to make it look like he was killed by the Kremlin.

Litvinenko killed himself to make it look like he was killed by the Kremlin.

Litvinenko was killed accidentally while building a nuclear bomb for Chechen rebels - or while smuggling radioactive materials to earn desperately needed money.

Litvinenko really isn't dead at all.

Perhaps the only thing Russia and Britain agree on as the investigation into Litvinenko's death Nov. 23 in London unfolds is this: Enough with the sensational, unsubstantiated conjecture.

But that message, it turns out, has been drowned out by all the sensational, unsubstantiated conjecture, fed by almost daily twists that only add to the intrigue.

Yesterday, the news agency Interfax reported that a key witness in the case, Dmitry Kovtun, who met with Litvinenko shortly before he fell ill, was critically ill himself with radiation poisoning and was in a coma in Moscow. But that report was dismissed by a lawyer close to Kovtun.

Litvinenko, who was buried yesterday in London, allegedly penned a deathbed missive pointing the finger at Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin.

While the West has focused on theories implicating Putin or the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB, the largely compliant media here have lent far more ink to those placing blame virtually everywhere else.

One theory holds that Litvinenko's friend and associate, the self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, himself bumped off Litvinenko (Berezovsky has denied this). Others claim it was CIA-backed Chechen militants, or another American-financed double agent from Italy with whom Litvinenko also met just before becoming sick.

It has been suggested that Litvinenko was poisoned by tobacco, since cigarettes naturally contain polonium (though a former member of Russia's parliament later pointed out that Litvinenko didn't smoke).

"For some reason, some journalists" - including those in the West - "they started blaming the president and Russian security services without any real information," complained Vladimir Demchenko, a reporter for Izvestia, which is owned by the state-run gas monopoly Gazprom and which has all but promoted the theory that Berezovsky is, in one way or another, to blame.

Demchenko co-authored a recent article exploring several theories, including ones that had Berezovsky and Litvinenko building a dirty bomb for Chechen guerillas or smuggling polonium. The information, he said, came from sources and "common sense."

"Mainly what we want the readers to understand from all this information and analysis is that the situation is much more complicated than it seems at first," he said. "I believe, as an individual, perhaps we should keep silent and wait until the investigation pins down certain theories. But, as a journalist, I believe it's important to give readers food for thought."

Conspiracy theorizing, both in the press and on the street, is something of a pastime here, where official information is hard to come by and the "truth" is often not true. There is a theory that several cosmonauts were once lost in space; a year ago, when Russia faced an outbreak of avian flu, a federal politician accused foreign poultry companies of giving birds the virus as a way to get business.

Litvinenko himself accused the Russian government of masterminding a series of 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow which were blamed on Chechens and used, so the allegation goes, to justify the second war there and help elect Putin president.

At times, such theorizing has risen to the very highest level of government. After the October murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya - like Litvinenko a fierce Kremlin critic - Putin himself suggested there was "reliable" evidence of a shady plot to "sacrifice" someone in the name of fomenting worldwide anti-Russian sentiment.

Many have applied that same line of thinking to the Litvinenko case. "Was Litvinenko Poisoned To Pit Russia Against The West?" the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda asked.

Evidence, it might be pointed out, is often treated as unnecessary, an afterthought, or both. Anatoly Chubais, head of Russia's electricity monopoly, who has survived multiple attempts on his life, offered none when he linked the murders of Litvinenko and Politkovskaya and the recent mysterious ailment of former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, at first thought to be another poisoning victim.

Chubais said all three attacks were part of a scheme to overthrow the current regime.

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