Murder and corruption deter voters in Russia's Chicago

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The Independent Online
POLICE WERE out in force in St Petersburg yesterday to keep order during local council elections already marred by one of the dirtiest campaigns seen in Russia, and overshadowed by the murder of the democratic politician, Galina Starovoitova.

Voting began sluggishly and television reports said there were more observers than electors in some polling stations. Officials said the vote would be regarded as valid, however low the turnout.

Many citizens were apparently too cowed or too cynical to take part in an election, which Ms Starovoitova's allies said criminals were using to seek power and immunity from prosecution. Corruption surrounding the vote in the former imperial capital, which is these days compared to Al Capone's Chicago, boded ill for the standard of national parliamentary elections due next year.

In the run-up to the St Petersburg poll, news reports said that elderly people were being offered small amounts of money, or in some cases, tins of peas for their votes. Democratic hopefuls also complained that "phantom candidates" with the same names as their own were being registered to confuse the voters. In one district, for example, there were three candidates with the name of Sergei Mironov but only one was a genuine local politician.

The victims of the dirty tricks were mainly candidates who advocated a new city charter to make the governor of St Petersburg, Vladimir Yakovlev, more accountable. Various groups backed the charter, including Severnaya Stolitsa, or Northern Capital, Ms Starovoitova's party. After she was shot at her home on 20 November, democratic politicians drew up a "civic anti-criminal list" of 70 candidates they said the public could trust. Communists were offended that they were excluded from the list on "ideological grounds" and said that being left-wing did not make them dishonest.

Despite launching a high-powered investigation, the Russian authorities are no nearer to solving the mystery of Ms Starovoitova's murder. Her aide, Ruslan Linkov, who was shot at the same time, recovered consciousness last week and said from his heavily guarded hospital bed that he was convinced the motive for the killing was political.

The outspoken Ms Starovoitova had many enemies. One theory is that extreme Russian nationalists may have ordered her assassination to punish her for challenging General Albert Makashov, a hardliner notorious for his anti-Semitic outbursts.

However, given the bitterness in St Petersburg, other people say that clues to her murder should be sought closer to the city that was her home and constituency.

The Moscow Times reported that Ms Starovoitova had been in possession of a tape that suggested there might be links between the St Petersburg undertaking and cemetery mafia and very senior local officials.