Putin critic loses post, platform for inquiry

Suspicious of agencies, he used power to probe '99 attacks that killed 90

December 11, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - One of the small but telling consequences of Russia's watershed parliamentary elections was to remove a nagging thorn from President Vladimir V. Putin's side.

That thorn's name is Yuli Rybakov.

For the past eight years, Rybakov has served in the Russian Duma - the parliament - from a liberal St. Petersburg district. From that post, he has rallied other liberal politicians. And he has criticized the Kremlin for its stranglehold on Russia's major media, for the slow pace of economic reform, and for Russia's brutal war against Chechen separatists - a conflict that has spawned suicide bombings such as Tuesday's in Moscow, which killed six people near Red Square.

But most prominent, Rybakov has questioned the official version of events surrounding a string of deadly apartment house bombings four years ago. Those attacks helped trigger a second war in Chechnya and launched Putin onto the political stage.

But in Sunday's elections, parties that support the Kremlin won control of more than two-thirds of the seats in the Duma - giving Putin a level of power unmatched since the Soviet era.

The Communist opposition suffered heavy losses, and "appeared to be the main target" of the Kremlin's campaign strategy, one senior Western diplomat said. But it was Russia's liberal, pro-democratic parties that were dealt the harshest blow.

In the 1999 Duma elections, they won 49 seats. On Sunday, they won just seven. Among those tossed out of power are the most prominent liberal leaders of the post-Communist era: Grigory Yavlinsky, Boris Nemtsov, Irina Khakamada and former dissident Sergei A. Kovalyov.

Rybakov, 52, was among the casualties.

His defeat may accomplish what arrests and assassination have failed to achieve: the silencing of outspoken and muckraking Kremlin critics such as those who served on what came to be called the Terror '99 Commission.

A few years ago, Rybakov helped set up that independent panel of citizens to investigate the 1999 apartment bombings.

Authorities claim to have solved the crimes, blaming Chechen separatists - two of whom are on trial in a closed courtroom here. Although there has been little controversy over blaming Chechens for subsequent attacks, Rybakov wasn't so sure about their involvement in the apartment bombings.

Eventually, Rybakov and some of his political allies came to the conclusion that it was possible the Russian security services had played a role in the blasts - accusations that have been repeatedly denied by officials.

In trying to find answers, Rybakov used his Duma office to demand sensitive records and publicize the panel's work. When he lost the election last weekend, he lost that kind of access.

"Now, as private figures, we will get only meaningless answers," he said.

And they still have so many questions.

Those uncertainties began after a huge explosion tore through an apartment building on Moscow's Guryanov Street on Sept. 9, 1999, killing 90 people. In quick succession, bombs blew apart other residential high-rise buildings in Moscow and the city of Volgodonsk.

Authorities quickly blamed Chechen rebels. The interior minister claimed, citing no evidence, that Osama Bin Laden was involved.

Then, on Sept. 22, police apparently foiled an attempted bombing in Ryazan, 130 miles southeast of Moscow.

A couple returning to their 12-story apartment building spotted mysterious figures going in and out of the basement. They summoned police, who discovered a detonator, sacks of what they determined was a high explosive, and a timer set for 5:30 a.m. An investigation by local police began to point to security officials in Moscow.

Two days later, the incident took a strange twist.

A spokesman for the FSB - the successor to the KGB - went on television to say the Ryazan bomb was a dummy, planted by security officers as part of a secret civil defense drill. The sacks, he said, were filled with sugar.

As dubious as the official explanation sounded, Russians were reluctant to question it. The local police investigation was dropped.

A few days before Putin was elected president in March 2000, the Duma voted 197-137 for an independent investigation of the bombings. But 226 votes were needed to approve the measure.

Doubts persisted.

In early 2000, critics of the Kremlin released a documentary titled The Attempt on Russia, which argued that security agencies were behind the 1999 bombings. The film was financed by the London-based Boris A. Berezovsky, a fugitive Russian billionaire and bitter Putin foe.

When Rybakov tried to bring 100 copies of the film into Russia, they were confiscated at an airport by customs officials. Another human rights activist who showed a smuggled copy in St. Petersburg was beaten in broad daylight on the city's crowded Nevsky Prospekt.

But Rybakov didn't give up. In April last year, he and two others - Kovalyov, the Soviet-era dissident, and the liberal Duma deputy Sergei N. Yushenkov - decided to bypass the Duma and set up a citizens commission to investigate the bombings.

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