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Published: Sunday, 7/29/2007

Long arm of the Kremlin threatens Russian migr s

London has been a safe haven for aristocrats, tea-drinkers, and now Russian businessmen. But in the diplomatic crisis that engulfs the city, the haven of posh real estate and luxury is vanishing for Moscow migr s.

What makes London so attractive to rich Russians is the United Kingdom s famously independent judicial system.

Though it is demonstrably as independent as ever, the Russians in London are getting nervous. In fact, anyone in their place would.

They are increasingly uncomfortable with their relative proximity to the Kremlin, which has subjugated major private entrepreneurs and political opponents in Russia and has been accused of dispatching death squads to London on at least two occasions recently.

The first was last fall, when Alexander Litvinenko a Russian secret police operative-turned political refugee and security consultant was lethally poisoned in London with a rare radioactive chemical element while dozens of other British citizens were contaminated.

The second was just last month when a Russian posing as a businessmen was arrested and deported from England on suspicion of preparing to assassinate a Russian tycoon residing in a self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom. It happened after Russia s attempts at the tycoon s extradition failed.

The tycoon, to whom the British granted political asylum, is central to both cases. Enter Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire whom Mr. Litvinenko self-admittedly once refused to kill on his superiors orders. Mr. Berezovsky is also the man the Kremlin blames for Russia s many ills from corruption to low life expectancy.

It is not hard to figure out why.

Mr. Berezovsky made his fortune during the early years of Russia s capitalism when most Russians went broke. He was instrumental in bringing President Vladimir Putin to power and later denounced him as an autocrat. Also, Mr. Berezovsky is Jewish.

This blame assignment sits well with a largely anti-Semitic Russian populace united by envy of a few remaining oligarchs not yet completely under the heel of their beloved Mr. Putin.

So the more criticism comes from the West in the aftermath of Russia s refusal earlier this month to extradite a Russian national accused of the radioactive poisoning of British citizens in London, the more popular Mr. Putin gets with his fellow countrymen.

Little wonder his approval rating at home has reportedly surpassed 80 percent. That s after it was pushed to beyond 70 percent several years ago after he jailed another Jewish businessman without a fair trial Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Formerly Russia s richest person, Mr. Khodorkovsky once owned Russia s most successful oil company, which eventually was broken up and sold for peanuts to Putin loyalists. He also intended to run for president and made no secret of it.

In response to the Kremlin s refusal to extradite the suspect in radioactive poisonings, the British expelled four Russian diplomats. The Russians did the same.

The tension plays into the hands of the Kremlin, increasing public exposure to its message: Oppose us and we ll get to you wherever you may be, London included.

If we don t want the Kremlin to reach us in the United States, we may want the White House to pressure Russia for answers regarding its refusal to cooperate with the investigation of the poisoning. It would help, for example, if Mr. Bush spent less time fishing for striped bass and more time fishing for those answers from Russia.



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