Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Cannes 2007: More on the spy

As the recent 60th edition of the world renowned Cannes Film Festival (May 16-27 2007) was preparing to close, a Russian spy sneaked in. Literally, because the controversial documentary, “Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case”, by Andrei Nekrasov was included in the Festival’s programme at the very last minute. It was screened on the penultimate day.

The former Russian Secret Service agent, Alexander Litvinenko, died in London – where he had been living in exile – on November 23 2006, three weeks after he was poisoned at a city restaurant with the radioactive substance, polonium-210.

Nekrasov, a friend of Litvinenko, had begun shooting the documentary two years before the spy’s death. The director continued filming even as Litvinenko lay dying in a London hospital. In the documentary, which I saw at Cannes, Nekrasov also interviews former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoy, who met Litvinenko at the London restaurant, Itsu, on the day he fell ill. Lugovoy was named as the murder suspect by the British police on May 22 this year.

Curiously, Litvinenko’s death was treated by Russian officials as some kind of bad public relations stuff. They said accusations of Russia’s involvement in the murder was “fabricated’ by President Vladimir Putin’s enemies.

However, the U.K. Government was determined to find the culprit and solve the mystery even if that meant a diplomatic row with Moscow. And this is precisely what happened when the British Crown prosecution named Lugovoy as the prime accused in the murder and demanded his extradition from Russia.

Russia found itself being pushed into the International Court of Law, and going by the country’s past records, the Litvinenko case can further strain Moscow’s relations with its European neighbours. They fear that Putin’s tendency to amass and use power may take Europe to those dark days of grief the continent once suffered.

Putin and Kremlin have openly shown their irritation over the Litvinenko’s case, and they have chosen to meet accusations with defensiveness, disappointing Europe and the world who once felt that Russia would move away from the inglorious Soviet era and become a solid democratic and law-abiding nation.

It is now widely believed that Putin’s Russia is going farther away from truth, fairness and accountability, and that justice is nothing but diplomacy where political motives play a vital role. The Russian President has been manipulating law to weaken the media, marginalise opposition parties and jail political enemies.

Putin used the Litvinenko murder to say that the West’s criticism of Russia’s record on human rights and democracy was an excuse to draw concessions from Moscow on a whole lot of international disputes from independence for Kosovo to Iran and the defence missiles.

Putin’s retort worries Europe and others, who feel that Moscow should embrace the common legal values that helped Europe to unite after the mayhem caused by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

In the Litvinenko case, Russia refused to extradite Lugovoi, who has pleaded innocence. Moscow has been in the meanwhile carrying out its own investigation of the murder, and much to the chagrin of Europe, the probe concentrates less on Lugovoi and more on exiled Russians whom Kremlin believes are out to discredit Putin.

An official at the Russian Information Agency saw Britain’s latest move calling for Lugovoi’s extradition as “political motivation”. The official said: “It is very likely that the Prime Minister (Tony Blair) deliberately put his political heir (Gordon Brown) in a situation where the latter would have to formulate his policy toward Russia under the strain of current tensions between the two countries”.

Most observers will scoff at this, and Nekrasov’s documentary will keep the issue alive. Not just that, but it will also tell the world that Putin was behind Litvinenko’s murder. Cannes presented Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, before screening the documentary, and a full house gave her a standing ovation, and heartfelt sympathy.

(Webposted June 7 2007)