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Russian spy murder plot thickens

Marketplace Staff Nov 27, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The mystery deepens in the case of the poisoned Russian spy. Alexander Litvinenko died in London on Thursday. Today, Britain’s Home Secretary said traces of the radiation that killed him have been found at three other places in London.

Litvinenko had been a vocal opponent of Russian President Vladamir Putin. There’s speculation that Litvinenko was poisoned by the Russian security services. And today’s Times of London says there may be a link to another scandal involving the Russian government: the takeover of Yukos, the giant oil conglomerate.

Tony Halpin is one of the reporters who broke the story. We reached him in Moscow. Tony, welcome to the program.

TONY HALPIN: Good evening, Kai.

RYSSDAL: Remind us, if you would, what the Yukos situation was with Moscow and the government taking it over.

HALPIN: Well, as you recall, the pursuit of Yukos and the jailing of its founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in 2003, was pretty much the most controversial action of the Kremlin since Mr. Putin came to power. Yukos was broken up and most of it sold off to another state company, Rosneft. It proved a very controversial issue because it’s gone to the root of the question of whether private property is protected in Russia, and also raises the issue of how many of these billionaires — these so-called oligarchs of Russia — acquired their fortunes in the first place.

RYSSDAL: And your paper is reporting today that Mr. Litvinenko had some information about Moscow’s conduct during the Yukos episode.

HALPIN: Yes. It’s emerged that Leonid Nevzlin, the number two at Yukos who fled after the Kremlin started pursuing the company and now lives in Israel, has told us that Mr. Litvinenko came to Israel not so long ago and passed on documents which he said related to the whole Yukos investigation. Mr. Nevzlin has said that it’s his duty to pass on this file because he had said that Mr. Litvinenko had found information on crimes, as he put it, that were committed with the Russian government’s direct participation. We don’t yet know what is in that dossier, which Mr. Nevzlin said he was going to pass to Scotland Yard. But clearly he thinks it’s pertinent to the poisoning and subsequent death of Mr. Litvinenko.

RYSSDAL: Let me take a step back and put this into context for a second. Russia has in the past year, 18 months, perhaps longer than that, become very muscular in its foreign policy, based on what analysts are saying is a great deal of confidence in its oil and natural gas strength. That it is now an oil superpower.

HALPIN: Well, yes, that’s right. And not only oil but gas as well, of course. Europe gets something like 25 percent of its gas from Russia. This oil superpower aspect of it has come along with the rising price of oil. Along with that has come immense wealth and with that wealth renewed confidence in foreign affairs on the part of Russia.

RYSSDAL: Does this confidence extend to leverage over the U.K. and whether or not London might be somehow persuaded, I guess, to not pursue this investigation?

HALPIN: You know, I don’t think that’s the case. Although clearly the U.K. has a great deal of interest now in Russian energy and the Russian energy sector — not only as consumers but as investors. Companies like BP are very active in the Russian market. But at the same time, the British authorities take a great deal of offense to having a British citizen — which Mr. Litvinenko had recently become — murdered on British soil.

RYSSDAL: And it’s a difficult situation for London, too. They don’t want this international financial capital to become a stalking ground, I guess, for people who have enemies there.

HALPIN: Oh, absolutely. London is a global city. There are people from all over the world who live there, who work there, who are there for different reasons — some of them to do with political asylum. The reason they’re there and the reason they’re contributing to London life is because they feel safe. If that safety is threatened or they feel their security is no longer guaranteed, then they may look elsewhere. And some of those people, of course, are very wealthy — as Boris Berezovsky, who was Mr. Litvinenko’s patron in many ways, has shown. He’s a very wealthy, former Russian oligarch who’s now in exile and living in London.

RYSSDAL: Tony Halpin with The Times of London in Moscow. Thank you, Tony.

HALPIN: Thank you.

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