Sergey Yushenkov’s murder on April 17 may have been the result of machinations aimed at destroying Russian President Vladimir Putin politically and personally, as well as undermining U.S.-Russia relations, seemingly on track again after the rift over Iraq.  Gunned down outside his Moscow apartment, Yushenkov, the leader of the Liberal Russia political party, joins a lengthening list of Russian luminaries slain in gangland-style hits in recent years.

Yushenkov was a harsh critic of the “oligarchy” as it evolved under Boris Yeltsin and his “family,” the loose network of Yeltsin associates that remains the dominant force in Russian politics and economics today.  Ironically, Yushenkov had lately become associated with “oligarch-in-exile” and determined Putin foe Boris Abramovich Berezovsky (BAB), who has financed the Liberal Russia project from his mansion near London, while fighting attempts by Moscow to have him extradited to face embezzlement charges.  With support from Berezovsky-backed media, Yushenkov was also involved in conducting an unofficial investigation of possible FSB (the domestic-security successor to the KGB; Putin is a former KGB/FSB officer) involvement in the 1999 terrorist bombings, allegedly carried out by Chechen terrorists, that helped get Putin elected president.

One pundit claimed that the murder was the result of Yushenkov’s connections to Berezovsky, an indirect “punishment”—and a warning—to BAB.  Berezovsky himself was bolder, telling reporters that he had “one question” regarding the murder: Was Putin “informed about the murder happening or about the murder being carried out?”  BAB answered his own question: “I think the latter would be more correct.”

No Russian commentator, however, has dared raise one theory that is making the rounds among Kremlinologists: The murder was likely connected to efforts by Berezovsky to collect kompromat (“compromising materials”) on President Putin.  Following Putin’s falling-out with Berezovsky and his subsequent election to the presidency in March 2000, BAB-connected media began dropping hints that the Russian president was goluboy (“powder blue”)—a homosexual.  The goluboy theme has recurred in Russian media ever since, suggesting that BAB, and possibly others, were warding Putin off with threats of exposure, something that could be devastating to him both politically and personally.

Since then, Berezovsky has claimed Putin was involved in narcotics trafficking.  BAB’s claims were followed by articles in Russian newspapers asserting that Russian military and security personnel have long been involved in the Central Asian drug trade, with the trade network targeting the West as its primary market.  The main trade route reportedly originated during the Soviet era, using the Western Group of Forces, stationed in East Germany, as a transit stop on the way to the West.  Perhaps not coincidently, KGB officer Putin was stationed in East Germany at one point.  Moreover, in May, German officials reopened an investigation of a St. Petersburg-based real-estate firm for which Putin once worked as a consultant: According to European press sources, German law-enforcement agencies believe that, among other things, the firm was using connections in Germany to launder drug money.  

The timing of the articles on drug trafficking, the reopening of the German investigation, and the continuing recurrence of the goluboy theme in Russian media suggest that the real target is Putin himself—and that BAB is using his connections in Russia and Europe to undermine the president.  The drug materials are likely aimed at discrediting Putin in the West, even as Moscow has renewed ties with Washington after the rift over Iraq and has strengthened Russian ties with Europe.  If BAB has hard evidence of a secret Putin goluboy life, then that material could be used to destroy him as a public figure in Russia.

Berezovsky, who has attempted to portray himself as a persecuted dissident, may be hoping to interest the United States, among others, in the dirt he has gathered on Putin.  Whatever the nature of the kompromat, the Bush administration should not become involved in the intrigues that are part and parcel of Russian politics (BAB may desire Western help in his political war on Putin), nor should such kompromat prevent cooperation with Russia on important matters, such as possible Russian help in securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.  Washington’s relationship with Moscow is strategic.  Given the criminalized nature of Russian politics, it is extremely doubtful that any Putin replacement BAB or other parties may have in mind would be a more desirable interlocutor than the current occupant of the Kremlin.  In any case, Washington should work to depersonalize relations with foreign leaders: The United States has an interest in cooperation with Russia, unencumbered by any illusions about the postcommunist system or Putin himself.