Yeltsin ill at moment of truth for democracy He and his allies seem powerless to halt slide to corruption, murder

November 24, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Russia, its liberals say, has arrived at a dangerous moment of truth, when the most respected of politicians are gunned down, when regional leaders act on their own caprice, unchecked by the central government, and when corruption is so widespread that even the elite secret police are accused of turning to crime.

At this vulnerable moment, the country was reminded again yesterday of the fragility of the official entrusted with guaranteeing the constitution and safeguarding freedoms: Boris N. Yeltsin, the 67-year-old president who has been chronically ill this year, was back in the hospital, this time with pneumonia.

And democratic politicians, who so far have been spectacularly unsuccessful at setting aside personal ambitions and working together, were suggesting that this might be their last chance.

Without an aggressive, united offensive, several leaders said, hopes for a democratic system could quickly slip out of reach.

"Terror and blackmail have become a fact of Russian political life," said Grigory A. Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko Party, in a television interview. "Criminality is moving all obstacles aside and heading directly into power. And so you have a putsch. You don't need tanks in the streets."

Yavlinsky mentioned the murder 18 months ago of Mikhail Manevich, who had been head of privatization in St. Petersburg; the news conference last week at which officers of the Federal Security Service (the successor to the KGB) accused their agency of ordering murders and planning kidnappings, and of a statement by a regional leader that his territory was considering withdrawing from Russia.

And then Friday night, Galina Starovoitova, admired as one of Russia's most courageous and honest politicians, was gunned down in the stairwell of her apartment building in St. Petersburg.

Her murder, widely described as political, was so shocking that Yeltsin's spokesman suggested it might have damaged the president's health. The president reportedly was in stable condition yesterday, but he looked far from well as he met in the hospital with China's President Jiang Zemin.

"The last two days were uneasy for Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] in a psychological and emotional sense, as well as for many other people," said Dmitri Yakushkin, the Yeltsin spokesman. "He was very sharply upset by the news of the death of Galina Starovoitova."

He could hardly have been cheered by any of the news of the last several days:

In preliminary results yesterday, voters in the southern region of Krasnodar elected as many as 40 Communists to their 50-seat local legislature. The election was a victory for the region's governor, Nikolai Kondratenko, who is notorious for his anti-Semitic rhetoric.

At public meetings, Kondratenko alludes darkly to a Zionist conspiracy ruining Russia. Despite laws against inciting racial hatred, no Moscow officials have interfered with Kondratenko.

Corruption is so widely entrenched that most citizens don't trust the police. Last night, on a TV call-in poll, 649 callers said criminals go free because police don't want to arrest them; only 134 said criminals go free because police are unable to find them.

About 5,500 Russian officials are under investigation for taking bribes, police said earlier this month. A police official suggested that poorly paid policemen can easily be tempted: a new officer earns $47 a month, and an experienced detective earns $70.

Last week, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of the southern Russian Republic of Kalmykia, said the central government was pushing his region out of Russia by failing to send money to finance federal programs. He suggested operating independently of the rest of the country. And though Ilyumzhinov has been accused of holding illegal elections by preventing any candidates from opposing him, Moscow has not made any attempt to hold new elections.

Anatoly B. Chubais, a liberal economist, suggested that Communist sympathizers are prepared to use the pretext of Starovoitova's murder, along with general revulsion over crime and corruption, to call for repressive measures.

"They are trying to use this to make new demands of the president, to demand the introduction of a state of emergency," Chubais said on television. "I imagine what will be the consequences of a state of emergency in our country."

Only aggressive, unified democrats are capable of thwarting this rising power, Chubais said.

"I am genuinely convinced that all people capable of understanding what is happening in the country should unite," he said. "The country requires such a unification today. Will it be possible to achieve this? We will see quite soon."

In St. Petersburg, liberal politicians were doing just that. They announced yesterday that they would combine efforts in the final days of the campaign for the city council.

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