Slaying of political reformist shakes Russia Human rights champion ambushed at her home

November 22, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Sun staff writer Kathy Lally contributed to this article.

MOSCOW -- Just when Russians thought nothing could shock them anymore, the murder of Galina Starovoitova has proved them wrong.

The outspoken legislator and human rights champion, shot to death in her apartment house in St. Petersburg late Friday night, was one of the last inspiring heroes from an era when democratic politics here had more to do with hope and truth than with corruption and violence. Her death in a dark stairwell struck a deep chord of dismay.

Politicians voiced their anger yesterday, and crowds flocked to Palace Square in St. Petersburg, where flags had already been draped with black ribbons. Some held aloft photos of Starovoitova with Andrei Sakharov, the late physicist and activist with whom she had worked closely.

Police promised a thorough investigation, but political murders almost always go unsolved here.

No one was suggesting that her slaying was anything but political. Starovoitova, who was 52, was motherly and fearless. Through 10 years of politics here, her reputation for probity and courage was unchallenged, but despite this -- or because of it -- she had made plenty of enemies.

She attacked the Communists in Parliament and was particularly direct in her criticism of Communist deputy Albert Makashov, who recently said that all the Jews in Russia should be rounded up and thrown in prison. In her home district, she actively opposed the St. Petersburg governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, and supported a change in the city charter that would give the city council more power.

Two months ago, an aide caught an intruder installing a listening device in Starovoitova's office. More recently she told a friend, Boris Pustintsev, that she was gathering some "very interesting information" about the campaign finances of some of the candidates in Tuesday's city council elections.

"There must be very big people and very powerful people connected and involved in this case," Pustintsev, a leader of a group called Citizens Control, said in a telephone interview last night.

Starovoitova had just left a meeting of the Duma, the lower house of Parliament, and flown to St. Petersburg from Moscow when she and an aide, Ruslan Linkov, entered her apartment house on the Griboyedov Canal at 10: 45 p.m. Friday. Two people were waiting for her; with five shots they killed her instantly and left Linkov gravely wounded. They dropped their guns and fled.

Her documents, $1,700, credit cards and 1,000 Bulgarian levs were found on her body, Itar-Tass reported. This led police to rule out theft as a motive.

"This is very bad for Russia," Dmitry S. Likhachev, a renowned historian in St. Petersburg, said in a television interview. "From now on people will be afraid to behave as courageously as she did."

President Boris N. Yeltsin sent a telegram to Starovoitova's family saying that he was "deeply shocked." He called her a "passionate tribune of democracy."

"She was among those who began our common fight for a new Russia," he said. "I have always considered her as my comrade. I have respected her for her honesty and decency. Noble and bold, Galina Vasilyevna [Starovoitova] was one of the most outstanding figures in Russian politics."

The president's spokesman, Dmitry Yakushkin, said Yeltsin had warned Russia's contending factions not to start blaming one another for her death.

"We must not use this murder as a reason for dividing the country," Yakushkin said. "This is first of all a challenge to the whole society, to all of us."

Starovoitova, trained as an ethnographer, became an active leader in the democratic movement that sought to transform the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

She understood the national divisions that would tear the country apart better than the Soviet leadership did. She once flew surreptitiously into Nagorno-Karabakh to try to make peace between Armenians and Azeris. She stood up to generals in the Duma and, in fall 1991, persuaded Yeltsin that the Soviet Union was through and that Russia and the other republics would be better off without it.

She served for a time as an adviser to Yeltsin but broke with him over the war in Chechnya in 1994.

She was considering a race for the governorship of Leningradsky Oblast, which surrounds St. Petersburg. "Starovoitova would have been a catastrophe for the corrupt machine in St. Petersburg," said Vladimir Oivin of the Glasnost Public Foundation.

Sergei Stepashin, the interior minister, flew to St. Petersburg yesterday and said he had brought along the country's best investigators.

Starovoitova's friends had few illusions about her case being solved. She is the sixth member of Parliament to be be slain since 1994. And two parliamentary aides as well as a local government official have been killed in the past month; all remain unsolved.

Starovoitova's slaying is sure to be a watershed event in Russia's political life, if only because she was so well-respected as an advocate and as a woman who kept her bearings in the unforgiving world of parliamentary intrigue.

Thousands are likely to turn out for her funeral Tuesday.

What happens after will determine whether they look back on it as a milestone in Russia's descent into criminality -- or, instead, as a turning point.

Gleb Yakunin, a priest who once served as a pro-democracy deputy alongside Starovoitova, said last night that her slaying suggests a disturbing convergence of organized crime with the still powerful Communist Party elite.

"As a clergyman," he said, "I think that the sacrifice of Christian martyrs led to the victory of the church. I would call Galina a martyr of democracy. She gave her life for democracy. We say that in the blood of martyrs are the seeds of life. So we hope God will take this sacrifice and her death will serve the work of life."

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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