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Russia: Chaos Prompts Increasingly Bitter Politics

Moscow, 24 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The murder of a prominent reform advocate and President Boris Yeltsin's return to hospital are the latest disturbances facing Russia's chaotic political life.

Kremlin officials said yesterday that Yeltsin was sent to hospital the night before with pneumonia and a high temperature. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin did not specify how long Yeltsin was expected to spend in Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital. It is the third health crisis for the Russian president in recent weeks.

It follows the assassination in Saint Petersburg late Friday of Galina Starovoitova, a State Duma deputy and one of the country's most outspoken defenders of democratic values. Yeltsin, through a spokesman, called the killing an ill omen for Russia's democracy and "a challenge" to the whole of society.

But Yeltsin's appeal, expressed by Yakushkin, that "hasty political conclusions" should not be drawn until the end of the investigation and that the murder "should not be used as an excuse to divide the country" went unheard by leading politicians and the media.

The reasons for Starovoitova's murder are unclear. Law enforcement officials have so far been silent, but speculation has centered on political motives. A heated campaign ahead of local elections scheduled for December 6 in Saint Petersburg is considered as one possible motive. However, politicians and analysts are not ruling out that the killing could have wider implications.

According to a senior political analyst at Moscow's Carnegie centre, Nikolai Petrov, the murder was a "serious political provocation, aimed at underlining the weakness of the state and of the authorities at all levels."

Starovoitova's murder dominated the Russian print and electronic media at the weekend, pushing Russia's political crisis to the top of the agenda, well ahead of the discussion of its many economic woes.

Leaders on opposite sides of the political spectrum launched vehement attacks on each other, via a media that seemed more than keen to take an active part in the verbal battle. Reformist Anatoly Chubais said bluntly that "communists and criminals" wanted Starovoitova's death. He called for a union of all democratic forces.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said that emergency measures should be introduced to establish order in the country. Zyuganov's words were angrily rebuffed by democratic leaders, who warned of "communist revanchism."

To observers in Moscow, the recriminatory tone displayed by Russia's influential weekend television news programs was reminiscent of the 1996 presidential campaign, in which the media unconditionally supported Yeltsin against his main contender, Zyuganov.

As in 1996, some Russian journalists seem again to be abandoning all attempts to provide unbiased coverage, especially in their analytical materials.

Ahead of the 1996 elections, Russia's best known anchorman, NTV's Yevgeny Kiselyev, said that he was suspending objectivity because the stakes of the fight between Yeltsin and Zyuganov were too high for that luxury. Yesterday, the sequence of materials and commentaries included in Kiselyev' weekly "Itogi" program carried an even more ideological message: He seemed to be arguing that the word communist was a synonym for fascist or criminal.

The same message came from an influential political player, financier and CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky, who reportedly controls the first channel of Russian television, ORT. He told Interfax that "the communists have turned into fascists and are trying to grasp power." He went on to say that the (communists) "stop at nothing and a person's life was never an obstacle for them." Berezovsky acknowledged he could not say Starovoitova's murder was carried out by communists, but added "I cannot rule it out either."

Another weekly programme, "Zerkalo," broadcast by the state-controlled RTR network, showed Sunday an interview recorded with Starovoitova last week in which she said journalists sometimes exaggerate their role. She called for objectivity in reporting.

After Starovoitova's murder it seems unlikely that Russian television channels and the men who control them, so deeply involved in political intrigues, will take note of her call. It already seems clear that Starovoitova's murder will itself be used by competing political forces in their quests for power.