Day: July 4, 2007

The banality of evil

Two new articles by Jeremy Putley:

Learning from Mr Wopsle

It can be a dangerous thing to say that a man is guilty of a murder before he has been tried and found guilty of that crime by a jury in a court of law – as Mr Wopsle found to his cost, in Dickens’s Great Expectations. If you have read that novel you will remember that Mr Wopsle was holding forth in the Three Jolly Bargemen about the guilt of the accused in a recent murder case. Listening to Mr Wopsle’s words was the great London lawyer, Mr Jaggers. In an overwhelming demolition of the unfortunate Wopsle, Jaggers pronounces one of the supreme principles of English jurisprudence. “The law of England supposes every man to be innocent until he is proved – proved – to be guilty.”

That is probably why no British newspapers have pointed out that the first, obvious conclusion to be drawn from President Putin’s refusal to extradite former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi to the United Kingdom to face trial on a charge of murder is that it amounts to a tacit admission of guilt. Newspapers do not publish what they deem to be defamatory statements even if they are true.

But if the accused will never face a court of law to answer to the charges, what then? Must there be perpetual silence on the question of guilt? That would be to compound the wrong that has been done. It would not be right to the victims. It would not be right to Russia, nor to the people in London poisoned by polonium-210.

Andrei Lugovoi was employed (with others) to assassinate a Russian dissident, naturalized as a British citizen and living peaceably in London. President Putin is well aware of that. He also knows that a finding of guilty against the accused in a British court of law will involve a simultaneous finding in the court of world opinion that the murder of Alexander Litvinenko was ordered by the Russian leadership. This much is only too clear.

Possibly, during court proceedings in the UK , if Lugovoi could ever be brought to trial, his testimony would provide confirmation of one theory of why the murder was committed and at whose instigation, in relation to which a number of facts are already in the public domain. It is now known, from BBC TV, that an 8-page “due diligence” dossier prepared by Alexander Litvinenko was about Victor Ivanov, currently chairman of Aeroflot. It follows, from the hypothesis advanced in a BBC Radio Four programme by Yuri Shvets, that Victor Ivanov is the Mr X described as the “powerful, dangerous and vindictive” individual, “closely associated with President Putin”, who may have ordered the murder of Litvinenko. According to the BBC radio programme, when Litvinenko gave the dossier to Lugovoi, in early October 2006, and Lugovoi delivered it (or reported its contents) soon afterwards to Mr X (Ivanov), the decision to assassinate its author was made, in revenge for the termination of a contract worth “dozens of millions of dollars”. Perhaps Mr Lugovoi’s evidence would shed light on the truth of this collection of allegations.

It would also be interesting if Titon International, the firm which allegedly employed Litvinenko to carry out the due diligence on Victor Ivanov, would publicly disclose the identity of the British company which commissioned the due diligence report, and subsequently pulled out of the deal.

But this is only one view of why Litvinenko was murdered. There were previous murder victims connected with the 1999 apartment building explosions, about which Litvinenko wrote in his (recently re-issued) 2002 book co-authored with Yuri Felshtinsky, “Blowing Up Russia: Terror From Within”. These include two State Duma deputies: the prominent liberal politician, Sergei Yushenkov, murdered by shooting in April 2003, and Yuri Shchekochikhin, a veteran investigative journalist, poisoned in July 2003, possibly with thallium. The assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, who was hated by the Russian hierarchy as a “traitor” to the organisation formerly known as the KGB, now the FSB, confirms the truth of what he wrote. The testimony of Andrei Lugovoi, supposing he could be persuaded to give it truthfully, would disclose that the FSB under its present head, General Nikolai Patrushev, is a corrupt, totally compromised, criminal organisation, so far beyond a possibility of being cleansed and reformed that it must be considered fit only to be disbanded.

There are only two commonly-held views of the 1999 apartment building explosions which killed more than 300 sleeping Russian citizens, and served as Putin’s pretext for starting the second war in Chechnya: that they were carried out by the Rusian FSB at the behest of the Russian power structures; and that of the Russian authorities, that they were the work of unidentified others for no known motive. The refusal of President Putin to allow Lugovoi to come to the UK to be tried for murder stands as implicit confirmation of the FSB’s guilt, in that it shows the government of the Russian Federation believes that his testimony would incriminate the guilty. And they are nervous.

When Tony Blair had a “frank discussion” with Vladimir Putin about the British government’s demand for Lugovoi’s extradition, earlier this month, Blair may, at last, have begun to understand the truth of the unsavoury character of his enigmatic interlocutor. (To Putin, by contrast, Blair’s lack of understanding of the truth seemed merely obtuse – hence, perhaps, Putin’s comment that British insistence on extradition is “stupid”.) A lawyer himself, Blair may now, as he leaves office, finally and too late have learned, from the refusal to surrender a criminal to justice, one reality of today’s Russia: that it is run by people who are not averse to the commission of crimes when they seem expedient, or convenient, or financially rewarding to members of the siloviki.

Putin the Banal

Evil comes in many forms. Only rarely is it in the persona of an insanely criminal monster such as those who disfigured the twentieth century. More often the perpetrators of great wrongs are comparatively insignificant men. One such is the incumbent President of Russia.

When President George W Bush greets the Russian President on Sunday, at his family home at Kennebunkport, Maine, on Sunday, they will shake hands, and perhaps embrace. The Russian President, aptly named Akaky Akakievich Putin by the late Anna Politkovskaya , is a man of insignificant personality. In consequence, it seems, it is difficult for the US leadership to understand or recognize the extent of the crimes for which he is personally responsible.

The criminal character of the Russian hierarchy, by the way, has been in evidence for many years, going back to the brutal conduct of the second Chechnya war at its commencement, and the multiple war crimes and atrocities perpetrated by the Russian armed forces against a civilian population. Russia is now again a country with political prisoners, a country where those who have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights have been murdered by the armed forces or by the FSB, and in which the rule of law is effectively in abeyance. Torture of prisoners in the custody of the authorities is endemic in the Russian Federation under President Putin – a fact of which he must be well aware. “Disappearances” in Chechnya have been condemned by Human Rights Watch as a crime against humanity. Journalists are murdered and there is suspicion that agents of the government are involved. Dissidents living abroad are murdered. Russia is a misruled country.

Putin’s upbringing and experience in the KGB, an institution which often operated supra-legally in accordance with orders from the political leadership, instilled in a notoriously vindictive man an amoral belief system: operational necessity justifies all methods – the end justifies any means. That is the present misfortune of Russia under Vladimir Putin, as his second term draws to an end and he prepares to nominate his successor.

When the history of Vladimir Putin’s presidency comes to be written the final judgements on him as a man and as a national leader will require a proper assessment of his character. The question which is sometimes asked is whether the evil things that Putin has done are the result of impotence, weakness or incompetence – an inability to act properly due to incomprehension, or structural weakness in the way Russian government functions – or criminality. Joseph Stalin, it is accepted by historians, was criminal by nature. There is evidence that Putin as President has displayed, from time to time, both incompetence and criminality. It is really a question of which is the preponderant feature of his makeup. To the victims, of course, it makes no difference – the consequences, just as under Stalin, have been the same.

When President Bush looked at President Putin and saw what he wanted to see, that was a worthless assessment, based as it was on nothing more than first impressions, or maybe just wishful thinking. More revealing was what happened at Beslan . That was a true test of character, and it revealed much about the character of the Russian President. In September 2004 at Beslan, in southern Russia, 330 people were killed including 317 hostages, of whom 186 were children. When the storming of the school buildings began, in an effort to bring the hostage-taking to an end, the use of flamethrowers and tanks in the assault, carried out while the hostages were still present in the gymnasium, resulted in the collapse of the roof onto the hostages below, killing 160 of them.

The most important question about this disastrous assault on the school is, who ordered it? There is no information on this. Putin himself kept a very low profile during the three days of the siege, but there can be no serious doubt that he was in close touch with the situation, and would have been consulted on the decision to carry out the storming of the building. Without his authority the decision could not have been made. But if it was his decision, or with his authority, the blame for the disastrous outcome of the storming of the school while it was still full of hostages falls squarely on Vladimir Putin.

It is useless to point out that the honourable thing to have done, in the face of such a catastrophic failure, was for Putin to resign. This is a western concept, and Russian leaders have not, historically, taken such ideas into account – it is apparently not a practical or sensible attitude to take. Similarly a western national leader would have gone to Beslan immediately the school siege began, and would have done all things possible to save the hostages. There would have been negotiations. But Putin’s way is never to negotiate.

Why did the Russian President allow the assault on the school to begin? There must have been a calculation, and a conclusion that hostage deaths were acceptable. The storm was necessary because the alternatives involved a loss of face – from entering into negotiations with the hostage-takers, or acceding to their demands, or showing weakness in some other way. The decision resulted in death and disaster. Was the decision criminal, or was this incompetence? As evidence it must be recalled that after the siege Putin declared on television, “We exhibited weakness, and the weak are beaten.” The hostages who died were sacrificed because the President feared to appear weak. Negotiations were possible, but were never tried. Whether the President was demonstrating a dreadful incompetence by refusing to negotiate for the hostages’ lives, or ordered the assault on the school knowing that hostage deaths would be certain to result, either way this was criminally culpable.

But in the end, the question of whether President Putin is knowingly responsible for his crimes, or thinks he is doing a good job but – in Rumsfeldian language – “stuff happens”, is not really important. To his victims it does not make any difference. World opinion, and the US President, remain largely indifferent to the question. There will be no real accounting any time soon, because when all is said and done the Putin presidency has been an interlude of considerable banality.