A Political Murder In Russia Could Spark Reform Or A Crackdown

All weekend, Russians sat glued to their TV sets, trying to make sense of Galina Starovoitova's murder. The 52-year-old grandmother and respected State Duma lawmaker was gunned down by contract killers in the stairwell of her St. Petersburg apartment building on Nov. 20. Even a citizenry inured to violence was appalled.

The assassination may signal the onset of a scary new period of political vacuum in Russia. Lawlessness has risen to terrifying proportions as political thugs and mobsters take matters into their own hands. President Boris N. Yeltsin, now hospitalized with pneumonia, hasn't run the government for months. From his sickbed, Yeltsin promised to supervise the murder investigations, but few give that much credence. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, meanwhile, seems to have all but given up on trying to fix Russia's broken economy. After nearly three months in office, he has yet to propose a budget.

Starovoitova is by far the most prominent victim to date. A leading democratic reformer and friend of the ailing Yeltsin, she was mulling running for Governor of the St. Petersburg region next September. The race could have pitted her against ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

STATE OF EMERGENCY? There's a chance that her death could nurture the reforms she wanted but failed to achieve in life. Within hours, leaders of the country's splintered democratic forces, including former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, former Kremlin economic chief Anatoly Chubais, and Yabloko Party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, were discussing forming a united front to fight the Communists. Such efforts, however, have foundered before.

A more alarming possibility is that the murder could push Russia into authoritarianism, under a figure such as Alexander Lebed or Gennady Zuganov. Already, calls to declare a state of emergency are making the rounds of the Duma, though both Primakov and Yeltsin oppose the idea. The demands will become more insistent if Russia's corrupt and incompetent law enforcement bodies fail to find the perpetrators. Last month, several agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB's successor, accused their superiors of an unsuccessful plot to murder wealthy businessman Boris A. Berezovsky. The FSB denies the charge, now being investigated by military prosecutors. Meanwhile, the FSB is handling the Starovoitova case.

Starovoitova was almost certainly killed for political reasons. Five other Duma deputies have been slaughtered in as many years. But they are widely believed to have been targeted because of their business interests. By contrast, neither Starovoitova nor her family was involved in business, and she had no control over state cash or assets.

She did, though, have plenty of political enemies. She has leveled corruption charges against leading Communists. Her relations with St. Petersburg's political elite were frosty, too. She was organizing reformist candidates in a municipal election campaign already marred by violence. One candidate was car-bombed, and another's apartment was shot up just days after Starovoitova's assassination.

It may be some time before Russia's political life is cleaned up the way she wished. If the political drift continues and the Starovoitova case disappears into the unsolved murder file, pressure could grow for early presidential elections--or even a coup.

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