Political Poison

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

FOR THE PAST 15 years it has been commonly assumed that Russian leaders gave up the Soviet practice of murdering political dissidents, inside and outside of the country. Maybe not. British authorities say they are investigating the apparent poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is fighting for his life in a London hospital after ingesting highly toxic thallium. A former agent of the KGB secret service and its successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB), who sought asylum in Britain six years ago, Mr. Litvinenko had alleged that the agency maintained a secret poisons laboratory. Along with many others, he also charged that the Kremlin was behind the 2004 poisoning of Ukraine's pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko.

There's no concrete evidence as yet that the FSB or Mr. Putin is behind the poison attacks -- but there is plenty of reason for suspicion. Mr. Litvinenko was investigating the recent murder of the country's best known opposition journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in her apartment building on Oct. 7. She, too, was hospitalized in 2004 and said she believed she had been poisoned. Ms. Politkovskaya's editor at the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Yuri Shchekochikhin, died after a suspected poisoning three years ago. No one has been arrested in these murders, but Mr. Putin publicly disparaged Ms. Politkovskaya while implausibly charging that his political enemies were somehow behind her death.

Former colleagues of Mr. Putin in the KGB don't doubt who is responsible. One, Oleg Kalugin, pointed out that the president pushed the Russian parliament to authorize the secret service to take action against "terrorists" outside the country. Another, Oleg Gordievsky, the former KGB chief in Britain, told the Times of London that he believed the attack was "state-sponsored" and was carried out by another former Russian agent. We trust that the British authorities will vigorously investigate the attack on Mr. Litvinenko -- who is now a British citizen -- and that Prime Minister Tony Blair will take seriously the possibility that a colleague in the Group of Eight sanctioned a political murder attempt in London.

While Mr. Litvinenko's story was emerging over the weekend, President Bush was pictured exchanging jollities with his "friend Vladimir" at a summit in Vietnam. Does Mr. Bush regret having given so much support to a leader who has dismantled his country's nascent democracy and whose opponents keep turning up in hospitals and morgues? If so, he's keeping his own secret.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company