Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Year, New Image -- In 2008

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Not long ago, a high-ranking Kremlin official admitted to close associates that the country's main goal in 2007 would be to "correct Russia's image abroad at least a little bit." Russia's image abroad has clearly deteriorated over the year, despite its chairmanship of the Group of Eight and the establishment of Russia Today television, the English-language channel aimed at improving foreign impressions of the country. Attention today continues to focus on the perception that Russia is using its energy resources as a political weapon and on the poisoning death of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko.

The Litvinenko case has been splashed across the pages of European newspapers for the last month and a half, generally focusing on the possibility that the Kremlin had him murdered. The degree to which Russian coverage has differed from that in the West underscores the huge political chasm separating Russia from the West today.

The Western take on the Litvinenko case is fairly consistent and simple: Litvinenko was an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin's regime and a friend of Putin's enemy, self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Litvinenko feared for his life and, in a note written just before he died, said that Putin had ordered his murder. The polonium-210 that poisoned Litvinenko was traced to Moscow, and appears to have been carried by one of his business partners, all of whom are former KGB and Federal Security Service officers. Readers aren't left with much doubt that the Kremlin really did order Litvinenko's murder and Putin's regime is becoming totally discredited in their eyes. Proclaiming a global power doctrine is one thing, but a head of state being involved in such a sordid criminal affair is something else altogether.

A different version of events has emerged in Russian coverage. Here, Litvinenko was not significant enough for Moscow to have ordered his murder. His associates, such as Berezovsky, were questionable figures, and he may even have been providing smuggled radioactive materials to terrorists.

One major pro-Kremlin newspaper suggested that Litvinenko and his associates were carrying contraband nuclear materials at Berezovsky's bidding. During one delivery Litvinenko accidentally received a lethal dose of radiation, and in a panic ran to Berezovsky, who suggested that Litvinenko ingest some of the polonium-210 so that his death, already a certainty, could be pinned on the Kremlin. In this version, the source of the polonium-210 was Leonid Nevzlin, the former Yukos major shareholder currently hiding in Israel from the Russian prosecutor general.

Dmitry Kovtun -- who has been linked to early traces of polonium-210 in Hamburg -- has been suggested by one side as the person who poisoned Litvinenko and by the other as another victim of an attempt to discredit Putin.

What is most lamentable here is that neither side is seems willing to be candid with the other as they conduct independent investigations and use the case as a propaganda weapon. The West is looking to implicate the KGB in the affair and undermine Putin. Moscow agreed to let Scotland Yard investigators come to Russia, apparently to allow itself to demand the right to interrogate Berezovsky in London in return. Meanwhile nobody has made any attempt to find traces of polonium-210 in Moscow, despite the fact that Kovtun flew to Europe from Moscow.

One thing is clear: No matter what the investigations ultimately turn up, it will be difficult for Moscow and the West to emerge from this scandal on good terms.

Which brings us back to the question of improving Russia's image in 2007. Not much hope now.

When he came to power six years ago, the big question in the West was: "Who is Putin?" Now that the West appears to have found its answer, we'll have to wait until 2008 -- and for Putin's successor -- to try to work again with a clean slate.

Georgy Bovt is editor of Profil magazine.