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The Economist (UK), April 26, 2003

A good man murdered

POLITICAL killings in Russia are rarely political. Ten members of the Duma, the lower house of parliament, have been murdered in the past ten years, plus a host of sundry other officials. Though the cases are rarely solved, most carry a strong whiff of corruption or business disputes. But Sergei Yushenkov, a Duma member shot dead on April 17th outside his home, was--so everyone says--clean.

Compare his murder with that of another Duma member, Vladimir Golovlyov, co-chairman with him of the small Liberal Russia party. Colleagues at first denounced that killing last August, a few months after the party was founded, as an attempt to intimidate the opposition. But a consensus quickly grew that Mr Golovlyov might well have died for murkier reasons: as the head of a privatisation scheme in the early 1990s, he was alleged to have embezzled large sums of money from people whose power later grew as his did not.

After Mr Yushenkov's death, in contrast, politicians of all stripes lined up to attest to his honesty and lack of interest in business, and to hint at political motives. He had a history as a dissident: first as a Soviet army colonel who publicly argued for military reform, then as a legislator who criticised authoritarian tendencies in post-Soviet governments.

He had lobbied against the military campaigns in Chechnya. After a series of apartment-block bombings in 1999 that killed 300 people, Mr Yushenkov and a handful of other deputies began investigating allegations that they were not, as claimed, the work of Chechen terrorists, but of the authorities themselves, eager to stoke popular support for the second campaign in Chechnya, which began shortly afterwards. Mr Yushenkov kept plugging away at the theory, and last year he helped Boris Berezovsky, an exiled business magnate and Liberal Russia's main financial backer, to distribute a film about it.

That connection means that even if business or personal reasons were not behind Mr Yushenkov's death, there is no shortage of conceivable political ones. Supporters of the bombing conspiracy theory think he was getting too close to the truth. Others point to his public falling-out with Mr Berezovsky, whom he expelled from Liberal Russia after the tycoon voiced support for the Communists. Mr Berezovsky, himself an arch-enemy of the Kremlin, claimed that the rift between the two men was exaggerated, to allow Liberal Russia to win official approval as a party, which it had trouble getting because of its links with himself. Some devious minds think Mr Yushenkov was killed specifically to cast suspicion on Mr Berezovsky.

There are more pedestrian theories. On April 23rd police arrested a young man fitting the killer's description, whose father had been jailed a few years previously for making threats against Mr Yushenkov. Revenge, they said, could be the motive.

Few people, however, doubt that the murder was indeed a contract killing: mainly because, as in many such cases, the killer left the gun behind. While contract hits are not as frequent as in the wild days of the early 1990s, a steady trickle of fairly high-ranking officials, along with many smaller fry who do not make the news, are still shot to order every year. And the gunmen are hardly ever caught, probably because whoever ordered the hit has the power to thwart the investigation.

The only other victim to match both Mr Yushenkov's level of respect and his reputation for cleanliness was Galina Starovoitova, an MP who championed human rights and was shot dead in 1998; only last year were six men arrested for the murder, and whoever ordered it is still free. The chances of Mr Yushenkov's killers being caught, let alone the man or men behind the murder, are probably no greater.


See also:

Human Rights

The Economist (UK), April 26, 2003

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