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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Death Of A Democrat

Washington, 23 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The brutal murder of Duma deputy Galina Starovoitova has deprived Russia of its most consistent defender of democracy, human rights, and interethnic cooperation.

But more than that, her death at the age of 52 last Friday night on the streets of St. Petersburg threatens the possibilities of debate in Russia's still fragile democracy just as much as the August 1998 devaluation of the ruble undermined that country's economy.

And that danger explains both the vehemence of the reaction of Russian political leaders and also Starovoitova's recent anticipation of her own fate, of the likelihood that those who had made the democratic revolution would soon be cast aside.

In the decade before her death, Starovoitova went from being an academic ethnographer to being a leader of the democratic movement in Moscow. But in both capacities, she was never afraid to criticize others who called themselves democrats if they failed to defend democratic principles.

Earlier than almost anyone else, Starovoitova spoke out in defense of the rights of Armenians during the Karabakh war, a position that led to her 1988 election to the USSR Supreme Soviet from Yerevan and membership in that body's human rights committee.

And even before the Soviet Union collapsed, she showed both her courage and commitment: In 1990, she won a libel suit against the Communist newspaper Pravda which had accused her of urging extraconstitutional means to change the government.

But her concern for these rights and rules was not, as some thought at the time, merely a reflection of her ethnographic interests. Instead, it arose from her deeply held belief that every individual and every group has certain rights that must be protected.

In 1991-92, she combined her passion for both by serving as President Boris Yeltsin's senior advisor on nationality issues and as co-president of the Democratic Russia Party. And at that time, she worked closely with reformers like Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais and Anatoly Sobchak.

But her relations with all of these leaders as well as others were often stormy precisely because of her uncompromising commitment to principle.

She was among the most outspoken critics of Yeltsin's ill-fated war against Chechnya. She condemned Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's decision to expel "persons of Caucasian nationality" from the Russian capital.

And most recently, she denounced her colleagues in the Duma and others in the Russian government for failing to take a tougher line against the vicious anti-semitic remarks and activities of Albert Makashov and other Russian nationalists.

But perhaps because of her willingness to break with allies when they backed away from their principles, Starovoitova had greater moral than political success.

She failed in her bid to run for president in 1996 supposedly for "technical reasons" but more probably because Yeltsin forces did not want her to draw off any reformist votes that they felt they needed to defeat communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov.

And at the time of her murder, Starovoitova was in St. Petersburg to take part in the Northern Capital political movement, a group she hoped to lead in a liberal challenge to that region's communist governor Vladimir Yakovlev in upcoming elections there.

Reaction to Starovoitova's death was swift and angry. Her former ally Yegor Gaidar spoke for many who had worked with her. He said on Saturday that Starovoitova had "paid with her life" to advance the cause of democracy in Russia.

She believed that "democracy in Russia is possible," Gaidar added, noting that this belief might seem "trivial" to some but arguing that her death shows that it "still needs to be demonstrated."

According to a statement, Yeltsin himself was "deeply outraged" by her murder. He pledged that the killers would be brought to justice because "the shots that have interrupted her life have wounded every Russian for whom democratic ideas are dear."

The Russian president dispatched his interior minister Sergei Stepashin to St. Petersburg to investigate Starovoitova's murder. And Stepashin indicated that her death would be investigated under the country's terrorism statute. But as so often in her short but brilliant life, Starovoitova herself appears to have described what her murder -- the sixth of a Duma deputy since 1993 -- means.

In an interview on Ekho Moskvy a few days before her death, she gave what many are certain to see as her last testament to the country, people and principles she cared most about.

"Any revolution inevitably devours its own children," Starovoitova said then. "We the democrats should recognize that this is true even of our peaceful one. But now we want to do what we can to save the gains of our revolution from being brushed--the freedom to vote, the parliamentary system, freedom of expression and freedom of the press."

Those who killed her would like to kill those things as well; those who remember her best will, now that she is gone, do what they can to prevent such efforts from succeeding.