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Russia: Debate Over Slain Lawmaker Not Expected To Affect Politics

  • Gregory Feifer

Last week's killing of liberal legislator Sergei Yushenkov has drawn a wave of protest from a broad range of politicians calling for reform of what they see as Russia's lawless society. But as debate over the motives rages, it is unclear what -- if any -- lasting impact the assassination will have. Some say the killing will serve to silence other Kremlin critics. Others say the current political unity over the crime will quickly dissolve as different theories for the murder are put forward.

Moscow, 23 April 2003 (RFE/RL/) -- The assassination last week of Liberal Russia party co-Chairman Sergei Yushenkov continues to reverberate within Russia's political establishment.

In the days after the vocal Kremlin critic was gunned down outside his Moscow apartment, liberal deputies lashed out at Vladimir Putin. They said Russia's self-described law-and-order president had done nothing to improve security since coming to office, and in fact had only succeeded in chipping away at civil liberties.

A so-far unanswered call for resignations went out. A Duma vote demanding Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov step down likewise failed. Complaints are now focusing on the deputies themselves, saying they are using the killing to advance their political causes.

The Duma today discussed the issue in a closed session with Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov and Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev.

In televised comments from the Duma floor, Liberal Russia co-Chairman Viktor Pokhmelkin called for the discussion to be closed to reporters so that deputies would not be able to turn the event into a "political show."

"If you really want to find out [what happened] and to help the investigation, then you will vote for the discussion to be closed and for not a drop of information to be released from here -- and especially for the faces of those whom Sergei Nikolaevich [Yushenkov] often confronted and fought with not to flicker on television," Pokhmelkin said.

The discussion comes as police today made their first detention in the case. Police are holding 20-year-old Artem Stefanov for questioning in the case. They say he is suspected of acting alone in Yushenkov's killing, which was meant to avenge the arrest of Stefanov's father.

Interfax quoted an unnamed source as saying Stefanov's father sent Yushenkov a letter in 1997 accusing him of stealing government goods earmarked for Chechnya. Yushenkov passed the letter to the Prosecutor-General's Office, saying he was the subject of an extortion campaign. Stefanov's father was then arrested and served six months in pretrial detention.

Police say Stefanov resembles a composite sketch of the suspect released yesterday. But Liberal Russia member Yulii Nisnevich told Ekho Moskvy radio he doubts Stefanov -- whom police describe as "unstable" -- is in any way linked to last week's killing.

Yushenkov's slaying -- which was a contract-style hit, with the assassin leaving behind a pistol fixed with a silencer -- is widely seen as having been politically motivated. The lawmaker's colleagues say he was not involved in business dealings and that he resolutely opposed corruption.

Many have said the assassination was a blow to the country's democratic values and will make oppositionists like Yushenkov -- who often spoke against the war in Chechnya and government corruption -- less likely to criticize the Kremlin.

But a slew of different motives -- including theft of large amounts of money and internal party squabbling -- have been making the rounds of the Russian press.

Dmitrii Orlov, deputy director of Moscow's Center for Political Technologies think tank, said observers are questioning whether Yushenkov's killing was purely political. He said relentless speculation about the case is quickly eroding what he calls the "political consolidation" among opposition figures over Yushenkov's killing.

"The initial wave of unhappiness with the power structures, unhappiness with Putin's general political regime, will quickly subside, especially if prosecutors and the Interior Ministry put forward a realistic hypothesis for Yushenkov's murder," Orlov said.

Yushenkov's Liberal Russia party was founded in 2001 with the financial support of exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii. Yushenkov later turned him out of the group after Berezovskii began courting figures associated with the Communist Party, saying he wanted to create a broad opposition group.

Former parliamentary speaker Ivan Rybkin told reporters yesterday that he and Yushenkov held a "friendly" meeting with Berezovskii in London last month.

Berezovskii yesterday said that he had sent Russian prosecutors a copy of a deposition made by Yushenkov last year indicating the legislator thought he was in danger from the Russian security services.

Yushenkov and Berezovskii had both accused the security services of organizing a series of apartment bombings in 1999. Officials blamed the blasts on Chechen rebels and used them as part of the justification for launching a second campaign in the breakaway region of Chechnya that year.

Speaking of growing intolerance in the country, Rybkin said Yushenkov was killed by "Russian fascism," Interfax reported. He added that Yushenkov was a man who "spoke as he thought and he acted as he spoke."

Yushenkov is the latest in a series of legislators to have been killed over the past decade. His is also the highest-profile killing of a legislator since the assassination of pro-reform campaigner Galina Starovoitova in November 1998.

Unlike Yushenkov's, most killings of politicians over the past decade are seen to have been directly linked with some form of business dealings.

Vladimir Golovlev, another Liberal Russia member, was gunned down last year in what many said was a result of his previous work heading the murky privatization of state property in the Chelyabinsk region in the early 1990s.

Some law enforcement officials have meanwhile bucked popular opinion by saying Yushenkov's slaying is likely tied to "economic reasons," Interfax quoted unnamed sources as saying.

Yurii Korgunyuk is director of Moscow's Indem research group. He agreed that while Yushenkov's killing "doesn't help authorities," it does not significantly damage their reputation. Far worse, he said, was the hostage crisis last year staged by heavily armed Chechen rebels who snuck into the capital and took control of a theater.

"Neither the police nor the Federal Security Service -- nor any other law enforcement organ -- can in fact guard every politician. It's essentially impossible to avert such killings. So I don't think this does much discrediting," Korgunyuk said.

Korgunyuk said Yushenkov's killing will have little long-term impact -- unlike Starovoitova's. Her assassination provided the impetus for a group of liberals to merge their disparate movements into the Union of Rightist Forces bloc, which today is one of the country's two main liberal parties. By contrast, Korgunyuk said, "Yushenkov's murder won't affect political forces in any way."