Death of MP stirs Russia's liberals

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The Independent Online
A 27-YEAR-OLD man was under armed guard in a St Petersburg hospital last night amid fears that he will be assassinated because he knows too much about the death of Galina Starovoitova, the liberal politician whose murder is threatening Russia's paper-thin stability.

Detectives believe that Ruslan Linkov may have invaluable information about the contract killers of the celebrated 52-year-old parliamentarian because he was with her when she was shot, in an attack that has caused the worst animosity between Russia's democrats and Communists for five years.

Although Mr Linkov, her aide, was shot in the head and throat, he was conscious yesterday and able to communicate with detectives by gesturing. Police hope to interview him soon about what has become the most high- profile murder here since the unsolved killing of the popular television host Vladislav Listyev in 1995.

The death of Ms Starovoitova, a courageous figure who was seen by many as one of the few untainted standard-bearers of democracy, has plunged Russia into soul-searching about the lethal nature of its politics.

Debate has not only focused on the motives for her murder but also on the depths to which its second city has now sunk.There have been five contract killings in St Petersburg in the last seven weeks.

As investigators set about their task a crowd of grief-stricken St Petersburgers stood outside Ms Staroviotova's home. Hundreds came to leave tributes at the stairwell where she was killed.

Considerably larger numbers are expected for her funeral tomorrow, which will bring outraged speeches about the blighted state of a country in which six parliamentarians and dozens of businessmen have been gunned down since 1993.

The murder has blown wide open the rift between the supporters of democracy and a market economy and the nationalists and Communists.

One politician after another has denounced the killing as a political assassination, linking it with her candid enmity for the far left, and fascism. A Kremlin spokesman revealed that on Friday, the day of her death, she contacted President Boris Yeltsin's office to appeal for him to act against growing extremism.

The issue that sparked that appeal had much to do with an age-old blight in Russia - anti-Semitism. This month MsStarovoitova fearlessly led a liberal assault on the Communists in parliament after they refused to condemn one of their members, General Albert Makashov, for a crude anti- Jewish diatribe. "Whose path did she cross?" said Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russia's privatisation drive. "The answer is simple: Communists and gangsters. There is a close link between the misanthropic remarks from General Makashov and her murder."

Although all Russia's main political parties condemned the killing, there was scant evidence of remorse among the red-black coalition behind the Communist Party, which has several powerful representatives in government. At a weekend congress, one of their members spoke out in support of the racist, Jew-bashing general. He was warmly applauded.

Several years ago, this tragedy might have galvanised Boris Yeltsin into action, but he is now too enfeebled to do much. Nor is there much hope of decisive action from the Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, whose few months in office have been characterised by inertia and the occasional outburst against the pro-market liberals.

Chief among them was Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister. "How many more honest, decent Russians have to be killed before democrats understand that only by sticking together can they achieve something in power and ensure that Russia becomes a safe country?" he asked.

Where Russia's fault lines erupt will partly depend on whether the murder is solved. Intriguing details have surfaced, including reports that one of the murder weapons was a rare American rifle, used by US special services and Nato forces in Yugoslavia.

The investigation, led by the Federal Security Service, has also established that one of the assassins is probably a woman. Reports circulated that Ms Starovoitova was about to expose corruption in high places, and those behind another assassination - that of St Petersburg's deputy mayor, Mikhail Manevich.

Obituary, Review, page 7