Russian Public Hears Little of Ex-Spy's Poisoning

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Michele Norris talks with Fred Weir, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, who is based in Moscow, about the Russian public's reaction to news of Alexander Litvinenko's death. Weir says most of the Russian public actually doesn't even know about the case, because the big Russian media outlets are not carrying the story. Weir also points out that although Litvinenko publicly blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for his poisoning, Litvinenko lived in a shady world, and there were plenty of others who might have wanted him dead.


To find out about reaction in Russia to the death of Alexander Litvinenko, we turn now to Fred Weir. He is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor based in Moscow. Mr. Weir, what is the reaction there? Is this a big story in Russia?

Mr. FRED WEIR (The Christian Science Monitor): Well it's not a big story if you go by the big media, which is mainly the three state controlled television networks who have hardly carried a word about it. In the still independent media and a few little niches and crannies, it has been carried quite a lot, but this reaches a very small audience, perhaps the educated intelligentsia. For most of the country I don't think people would be aware of the story at all.

NORRIS: In this letter that Litvinenko dictated before he died, he said protests from around the world will, quote, “reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life.”

If this story, you know, continues to grow around the world will this have any impact on the Putin government?

Mr. WEIR: I don't think so. First of all, I don't believe protests will rise in Russia because it needs to be said that under Putin, life has improved a lot for the average Russian. The economy's grown for seven years and Putin is very popular and therefore, for most Russians, even if they heard all about this story, I don't think that they would protest.

What we have is a fairly beleaguered sector of NGOs and political dissidents, oppositionists, human rights workers and so on, and these are the kind of people who feel very scared and threatened. Over a month ago one of the best journalists in Russia, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered here in Moscow, and these kind of things, if people feel a pattern emerging, this will really chill the whole political climate in Russia.

NORRIS: Fred, you mentioned a pattern emerging. This is not the only case where questions have been raised about the Kremlin's possible involvement in a poisoning case. There was the case of Victor Yushchenko, the Ukraine's leader, and the journalist that you mentioned, Anna Politkovskaya. She had said that at one point the Kremlin had tried to poison her. How common is this?

Mr. WEIR: Yes, there was also the case about three years ago of another journalist, Yuri Shchekochikhin. His friends and doctors said he was poisoned and they also felt that some skullduggery had taken place. So there is a string of these suspicious murders.

NORRIS: And does it raise any questions about the Secret Police, the FSB?

Mr. WEIR: Oh, yes. And the other dimension here is that the Secret Police have run amok before and murdered their opponents at home and abroad. And these institutions have not been reformed. They are as opaque as they ever were and there is always the fear that the same political terror could return.

NORRIS: Alexander Litvinenko claimed that the Kremlin was behind this but some Russian analysts have pointed out that Litvinenko could have had a long list of powerful enemies stemming from his work with the FSB where he at one time headed up the anti-corruption unit. Is that indeed possible?

Mr. WEIR: Oh, yes. In Litvinenko's case there are probably many potential suspects. He was closely associated with Boris Berezovsky, the exiled oligarch who is very much in opposition to the Kremlin. Many people associated with Berezovsky have come to a hard end and so one really wonders what might have happened to Litvinenko there in London, you know, in the circles of Russian exiles. With all the intrigues and conspiracies that go on, there are many possible explanations for that happened to him.

NORRIS: Fred Weir. He's correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He was speaking to us about reaction in Russia to the death of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko. Mr. Weir, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. WEIR: My pleasure.

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