Kommersant Becomes Embroiled in “Litvinenko Affair”

There is a strange story brewing over at Kommersant. On Tuesday the business daily received a letter from the Russian government’s media watchdog agency, Rossvyazokhrankultura, concerning an interview the paper published with Ahmed Zakayev. For those not familiar with Zakayev, he is the representative of the Chechen independence movement in London, where he recieved political asylum in 2002. At issue are the transcripts Kommersant published of the deposition Zakayev gave to Russian investigators on 30 March. Rossvyazokhrankultura “believes that the publication of this material may fall under the purview of Article 161 of the Russian Criminal Code (‘The Impermissibility of Disclosing Information from Preliminary Investigations’), in consequence of which a corresponding enquiry has been sent to the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office.”

The possible legal violation only concerns the publication of this material on the web. Kommersant editor Pavel Chernikov said that the the tone of the letter was “polite and undemanding” and this led him to speculate that “It is as though the agency has its doubts – in the opinion of officials, the publication [of the material] ‘may fall’ under the purview of the article from the Criminal Code, meaning that it also might not.”

The question around the publishing Zakayev’s deposition is whether the Chechen leader is a participant in a criminal case. Article 161 of the Russian Criminal code forbids the publication of materials dealing with ongoing criminal investigations. To Kommersant’s knowledge, Zakayev is not part of a criminal investigation and as far as they knew the deposition in question was considered an voluntary “interview” and not an interrogation.

The government letter to Kommersant comes on the heels of increasing tensions between the Russians and the British over the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi. The Russian government officially rejected a request to extradite Lugovoi to London for trial for Alexsandr Litvinenko’s murder. Britain seems prepared to take a tough stand despite Russia’s unwillingness to compromise. It is even considering expelling low level Russia diplomats as a way to put pressure.

Tensions between the two governments are only a small part of the weirdness that continues to hover over the “Litvinenko Affair.” Even stranger is the sudden appearance of Vyacheslav Zharko. In a series of interviews in Izvestiia, Moskovsky komsomolets, Russia Today, and featured on the NTV program Incident Investigation, Zharko claimed to have been recruited as a paid informant by MI6 with the help of Litvinenko. According to Kommersant,

Vyacheslav Zharko announced to TV watchers and newspaper readers that he had been recruited by MI6 with Alexander Litvinenko’s help 5 years ago. Zharko said that after Andrei Lugovoi’s press conference on May 31, 2007, MI6 officers and Boris Berezovsky began calling him “on a secret phone” and “insistently inviting” him abroad. Zharko became afraid for his life, and went to give himself up to the FSB. Zharko claims he was supplying information from the Internet to the British intelligence, passing it off as confidential. MI6 was paying him ?2,000 per month for the information. The most sensational detail is Zharko’s story about the trip to Istanbul in August 2005 together with Litvinenko. There he saw Litvinenko meet with people of undefined appearance (Zharko said to NTV it was people from the Caucasus, to MK – people “of Arab appearance”, and to Izvestia – those “who looked like our people from the Caucasus”, who suddenly turn into “Arabs” again by the end of the interview). According to Zharko, those people gave Litvinenko a certain “jar” (NTV, MK), or a “metallic thing like a container” (Izvestia), after which Litvinenko allegedly said with satisfaction: “Putin will soon be done for”. Zharko implied that Litvinenko received his death from that jar.

This, of course, was a dream come true for those who have taken Lugovoi’s statements that Litvinenko was an MI6 agent as evidence that the murder was part of a Berezovsky backed Western conspiracy against Putin’s government.

At this point, all I can say is who the hell knows what is going on.