Mark Steel: Polonium 210 was cancelled due to signal failure

If this was carried out by a state department, Putin will announce it's to be privatised
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The Independent Online

They must be bemused in Chechnya. Because they had about 50,000 people blown up by Putin and no one gave a toss. They probably made countless attempts to interest politicians and reporters from the West, who said: "Hmm, you've had your hospital destroyed by a tank, have you? Well it's a bit 1940s I'm afraid. Have they killed any of you with rocket-propelled bird flu or a remote-controlled piranha - something a bit sexy?"

While Putin's army was destroying Chechnya, Tony Blair welcomed him to Britain, and described him as a "great moderniser". And that certainly applies to whoever killed Mr Litvinenko. Because there can hardly be a more modern way of murdering someone than with radioactive sushi. In many ways the two men are so similar that when Putin makes a statement on the incident, he might say: "This is not a betrayal of KGB values. It represents traditional assassination in a modern setting."

And if this was carried out by a state-run department, Putin will announce it's to be privatised so it can bid for outside contracts. By now they've probably already made a showreel to publicise their work called "Ready Steady Poison", in which a Russian version of Ainsley Harriott chortles: "Now you only need to add a pinch of this stuff. Too much is a waste. Not only that but it's a bit heavy on the palate, and just because you're killing someone, you don't want to drown out the subtle flavours of the salmon."

Most commentators have suggested the killing couldn't be linked to the hierarchy of the Russian government because it's too clumsy and risky. But this is to underestimate government agents. The CIA's attempts to assassinate Castro included placing a bomb inside an attractive sea-shell, in an area of the beach that he strolled on, in the hope it would catch his eye and he'd pick it up. So by comparison this effort was dry and straightforward. Maybe the world's older secret service agents meet up in gloomy pubs to drink bitter and complain: "Youngsters today have it easy. In the old days, if you wanted to murder someone with sea-food you were up all night making an exploding whelk."

But this case represents more than one murder, because it's forced much of the British establishment to acknowledge that Russia has gone wrong. This leaves them in some turmoil, because when the Soviet Union collapsed this wasn't just seen as the demise of a tyranny, but the ultimate triumph for capitalism. Big business had won so freedom and prosperity would surely follow. Businessmen scrambled for their piece of this private wealth, and this was celebrated as an example of the new liberty. George Soros, the West's most quoted financier of the time, wrote: "It's robber capitalism, it's lawless, but it's very vital and viable."

One flaw in this logic was that most of the newly rich Russian businessmen had previously held senior posts in the Communist Party, which is how they got access to this new treasure. Which means the attitude of the country's new owners was: "Under the old system I believed it was my right to be pampered in luxury, while most people were poor under communism. But now I realise it's actually my right to be pampered in luxury, while most people are poor under capitalism. Truly we should be grateful for this historic change."

If you pointed this out at the time, you were scowled at like someone who suggests the week before a World Cup that England aren't going to win. Now, 15 years later the place is in chaos, to the extent that life expectancy for men has fallen from 65 to 59. Which must be another sign of the new freedom, because in the old days people were forced to endure six extra years of turgid communism, but in the free society you've no need to fear you'll be queuing for bread at 60.

But this is only a more dramatic version of what's taken place in the West. Over here we hear the same logic, that the only way of building a hospital or maintaining a transport system is to ensure someone will make vast profits from them. For example Network Rail have announced profits of £747m, and awarded their chief executive £1m for running the worst rail service in Europe.

And it's the same with everything; the Dome, Wembley, or the Olympics where we've somehow managed to get 18 months behind although it's only 16 months since we were awarded the thing.

If only the contract on poor Alexander Litvinenko had gone to a consortium involving Multiplex and Network Rail. He'd still be alive and well in Mayfair, while a spokesman would be summonsed to the Kremlin to say: "I'm afraid the fish was four years late, the polonium 210 was cancelled due to signal failure and I know we said we'd do it for 50 quid but it's now going to cost £350bn."

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