Ex-Soviet agent may be tied to politician's shooting death

Latvia detains veteran of special police unit, but Russians uninterested

January 30, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RIGA, Latvia -- On Nov. 21, 1998, Galina Starovoitova and an aide climbed the darkened stairwell of her St. Petersburg apartment house, where two killers carrying three guns awaited their chance to silence one of Russia's foremost democrats.

Starovoitova, a member of parliament, was shot dead. The aide, Ruslan Linkov, was gravely wounded but survived. Two guns were dropped on the stairs. The third was not found.

The killing was shocking and troubling. Starovoitova was one of the few democrats whose reputation was unblemished, a proud and courageous woman who believed in a quixotic fight for justice. Her killing left the unmistakable impression that violence had triumphed over Russia's feeble attempts to create a law-abiding democracy -- and the general expectation was that, like so many other high-profile killings, it would go unsolved.

But police in Latvia believe they may have stumbled onto someone who had a hand in the killing. His name is Konstantin Nikulin, and he is a former member of a special police agency set up in the dying days of the Soviet Union, an agency that dispatched its Latvia detachment into Riga to spread fear, disruption and violence, to keep the republic off balance and unable to move toward independence from Mos cow.

This police group, called the OMON, failed. Latvia proclaimed its independence in August 1991 and has spent the past decade trying, not always successfully or fairly, to deal with the heritage of Russian occupation and Communist rule.

Within days of independence, members of OMON were airlifted to Russia. But the OMON, too, has a heritage. The violence, once unleashed, has lived on. And it has come back to haunt the country that set these killers in motion.

The Latvian police picked up Nikulin in another case in October.

After he had been detained, they began to suspect a link to the Starovoitova killing. They say they sent evidence to their counterparts in St. Petersburg for analysis but have heard nothing since. The Federal Security Service office in St. Petersburg, which is investigating Starovoitova's death, appears to be uninterested in the Latvian discovery.

Russian investigators have made no move to question Nikulin and seem to be content to let him remain in Riga.

In a country where dozens of high-profile killings have gone unsolved, their hands-off attitude in this case raises questions about their dedication.

Group's origins

A decade ago, the Soviet Union was an uneasy, anxious nation. Organized criminal gangs taking advantage of the loosened economic structure, and a wholly unexpected burst of nationalist feeling in non-Slavic republics such as Latvia, led to the creation of the OMON (Special Mission Militia Detachment). It was tough and ruthless.

And though it was set up to fight economic crime, it soon became a handy instrument in the Communist Party's fight against separatism.

In October 1990, the Riga OMON started attacking political demonstrators. People were beaten in the streets. On several occasions from Jan. 14 to 16, 1990, as a Soviet crackdown spread throughout the Baltics, OMON forces in Riga fired on barricades that had been set up on a bridge leading into the city. One man was killed.

On the night of Jan. 20, they assaulted the local police headquarters. Rumors spread that local police had been handing out weapons to nationalist groups. The OMON pulled up in several military vehicles and began firing. Hundreds of shots were sprayed in various directions. Five people were killed, one of them a television cameraman, the others bystanders in an adjacent park.

It had been an exercise in intimidation, and it was one of the defining moments in Latvia's quest for independence. But at the time no one knew where events would lead.

There were more attacks: on a customhouse in May 1991; on police headquarters again in August, when Soviet hard-liners were attempting a coup against then-President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Moscow; and the next day on a police academy.

The Soviet coup attempt collapsed, and within days Latvia declared independence. On Aug. 26, the Riga OMON detachment, about 150 strong, packed up planeloads of stolen cars and weapons and flew to Tyumen, in Siberia.

With them was Konstantin Nikulin.

Victim opposed hiring

Tyumen, an oil town, proved to hold few charms for men who had been living in the Baltic republics. They drifted to St. Petersburg, several seeking important police posts there. Starovoitova, who had been campaigning for democracy and the rule of law since the 1980s, strongly -- and successfully -- urged local officials to keep the Riga OMON veterans off the force. It is evident that some took up racketeering and contract murder.

Latvian police suspect that Nikulin was associated with Yuri Shutov, a former member of the city council who has been charged with ordering eight killings.

Nikulin's parents, girlfriend and son were living in Riga, and he began to move between Riga and St. Petersburg, apparently with false documents.

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