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Russia: Assassination Of Liberal Lawmaker Seen As Attack On Democratic Values

  • Gregory Feifer

One of Russia's leading liberal lawmakers was shot dead in an apparent contract killing outside his apartment in Moscow yesterday. Sergei Yushenkov was one of the founders of Russia's first post-Soviet democratic movement and a staunch supporter of human rights. A rare vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin, his killing is seen by many as an attack on the country's democratic values.

Moscow, 18 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A leading liberal member of the Russian parliament was shot dead outside his apartment in the outskirts of Moscow yesterday afternoon in the latest of Russia's high-profile assassinations.

Sergei Yushenkov, 52, emerged as one of the founders of the Russian democratic movement during the Soviet collapse. He was a vocal supporter of human rights and a long-time critic of President Vladimir Putin and the war in Chechnya.

His killing has shocked Moscow's political establishment and raised new questions about law and order under Putin, who came to power advocating a strong state that would clamp down on Russia's rampant lawlessness and corruption.

Boris Zolotukhin, a co-leader of Yushenkov's Liberal Russia, spoke to reporters at the scene of the killing yesterday. "This is yet another political assassination. Sergei Nikolaevich was a very visible politician, a significant figure in the democratic movement. He was a person of unimpeachable honesty, generosity, and courage," he said.

In a statement, Putin said he was "deeply shaken" by Yushenkov's murder, adding, "A man who considered the defense of democratic freedom and ideals his duty has been killed."

The attack came on the day Yushenkov and his colleagues held a light-hearted news conference to herald the formal registration of Liberal Russia. Smiling and telling jokes, Yushenkov, a co-chairman of the party, announced the successful registration bid, which allows Liberal Russia to run in parliamentary elections in December.

"Dear friends, the registration of the Liberal Russia Party [for the Duma election], the importance of which we have always stressed, is now completed. We have registered our 53 regional branches in the Justice Ministry and, in accordance with our law, the Liberal Russia party now has the right to participate in the elections," Yushenkov said.

Russia's "Vremya novostei" newspaper reports that Yushenkov is the "ninth acting member of the Duma to be killed." His death follows the assassination of another Liberal Russia member, Vladimir Golovlev, last August.

Yushenkov's murder is one of the country's highest-profile killings since that of proreform campaigner Galina Starovoitova in St. Petersburg in 1998. Neither Starovoitova's nor Golovlev's murder case has been solved.

Yushenkov was shot at close range three times in the back as he left his chauffeured car outside his apartment building. The assassin fled the scene, leaving behind a pistol fixed with a silencer. Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov said he has taken personal command of the investigation.

A former officer who taught Marxist philosophy at a military academy, Yushenkov in 1990 became a member of the first democratically elected parliament in Russia, which was still one of 15 Soviet regions.

A member of the so-called "first wave" of post-Soviet Russian democrats, he caught the public eye during the 1991 hard-line coup attempt, when he persuaded a tank commander outside the building holding Boris Yeltsin to support the future president.

Yushenkov continued to serve in every Russian parliament. He at one point headed the Defense Committee and led largely unsuccessful calls to reform the country's deteriorating Soviet-era military.

Yushenkov emerged as a staunch opponent of President Vladimir Putin, whom he accused of rolling back democracy in Russia. The lawmaker was also one of the leading critics of the war in Chechnya, and helped spearhead public protest against the campaign.

Some have suggested Yushenkov's killing may have been ordered by the security services, whom the deputy accused of being behind a series of apartment explosions in 1999. The government blamed the blasts on Chechen rebels. Putin, a former head of the Federal Security Service, as prime minister used the explosions as one of his chief reasons for starting a second campaign in Chechnya.

Yushenkov split from the liberal Union of Rightist Forces in 2001 to co-found Liberal Russia, with financial backing from exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii. The party later expelled Berezovskii because of his support of the Communist Party, and a Justice Ministry official yesterday confirmed that Berezovskii is not a member of the officially registered Liberal Russia party and cannot run on the party ticket.

These developments have led some to point to the exiled billionaire as a possible suspect in Yushenkov's killing. In an interview yesterday with Russia's NTV television, Berezovskii, speaking from London, said he expects authorities "suspect his involvement in the killing" and that he will be a target of the investigation.

Liberal Russia co-head Zolotukhin echoed the opinions of other politicians who said that Yushenkov's killing reflects Russia's lawlessness and called for fundamental change in the country."This isn't the first political assassination of a democratic leader. These murders aren't solved. The authorities don't act. Nothing has been done to solve the murder of [Galina] Starovoitova. Another co-leader of our party was also recently killed, Vladimir Ivanovich Golovlev. Today, it was Yushenkov who was killed. Political assassinations are taking place in our country, murders of democratic leaders. This is a tragedy of our time," Zolotukhin said.

Grigorii Yavlinskii, head of the liberal Yabloko party, with which Yushenkov frequently sparred, joined the chorus of laments while speaking to reporters outside the Duma yesterday. He said Russia was seeing "political terror." "This is undoubtedly a political assassination. It would be political in any version because it shows that criminal structures threaten politicians of every level," he said.

Some law enforcement officials have said Yushenkov's murder is likely tied to "economic reasons," Interfax today quoted an unnamed source as saying. But unlike other prominent assassination victims, Yushenkov was not engaged in business and was not particularly wealthy, fellow legislators said.

Chief Moscow Prosecutor Mikhail Avdyukov spoke to reporters yesterday: "A criminal case has been opened under Statute 105 [of the Criminal Code]. The city prosecutor's office is investigating the matter. The main hypothesis is connected to Yushenkov's activity as a deputy. That is, the murder is being tied to his state-connected activity. Naturally, other hypotheses tied to his possible private life and non-deputy activity are also being investigated."

Yushenkov often spoke to reporters about corruption in Russia's politics and the war in Chechnya. As with other staunch and outspoken defenders of human rights in Russia, his critics painted him as an eccentric -- a tendency he aided with sometimes outlandish and half-jesting comments. He once called on Yeltsin to return from retirement and correct what he saw as Putin's mistakes and said the Kremlin should be turned into a mini-state along the lines of the Vatican. But even Yushenkov's bitter political foes conceded the resoluteness of his principles.

Yushenkov recently edited a book of essays about political liberalism. He defined the term to apply to a system that essentially prized acceptance of different points of view. "No one group or person can claim to 'know' reality," he said last year. "Liberalism is based on cooperation, not on individualism that ignores others" values. We're not building any schemes, any dogmas."

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