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The Moscow Times, April 18, 2003

Liberal Russia's Yushenkov Shot Dead

By Simon Saradzhyan, Nabi Abdullaev and Oksana Yablokova

Vladimir Filonov / MT
A woman whom neighbors identified as Yushenkov's daughter Yelena, 19, being comforted near the entryway to his apartment building in Tushino on Thursday evening.
Sergei Yushenkov, one of Russia's most prominent liberal opposition figures and a State Duma deputy, was shot dead in Moscow on Thursday evening in what fellow deputies condemned as an apparent political assassination.

Yushenkov, 52, was gunned down at the entrance to his apartment building in northwestern Moscow just hours after the Justice Ministry officially registered his Liberal Russia movement as a party.

In his last public comments, a smiling Yushenkov told reporters in the Duma at 2 p.m. that the "registration has been completed" and his party hopes to finish third in the upcoming Duma elections.

At 6:40 p.m., an unknown assailant shot him four times in the back after he got out of his chauffeur-driven car and walked toward the entrance of the apartment building at 13/2 Ulitsa Svobody. The assailant then fled, leaving a Makarov pistol equipped with a silencer behind in what bore the mark of a typical contract hit, police said.

"Sorry, I can't, I can't. ..." Yushenkov's wife sobbed when reached on her husband's mobile phone soon after the murder.

At about 8:30 p.m., a young blond woman who neighbors said was his daughter was permitted inside the cordon that police had set up around the building. She rushed toward Yushenkov's body, which was covered with a white sheet, but was intercepted by the young man who was with her. She sobbed loudly as he drew her out of the courtyard and drove away.

Yushenkov had bought the apartment, on the fourth floor of the five-story brick building, only several months before and had not yet moved in since renovation work was still being done, neighbors said.

Numbered white markers, apparently showing the locations of the cartridge shells, were visible between the body and the door to the apartment building.

A special task force that was quickly set up to investigate the hit was focusing on Yushenkov's activities as a Duma deputy, chief city prosecutor Mikhail Avdyukov told reporters at the scene. He said investigators were also looking into the possibility that Yushenkov could have been killed over some disagreements in "his private life" or activities not related to his work at the Duma. He would not elaborate.

Yushenkov, a co-chairman of Liberal Russia and a member of the Duma's security committee, had not been involved in any business activities, unlike some other deputies who have been killed in recent years, his colleagues said. Yushenkov is the ninth Duma deputy to be killed in the past nine years. None of the killings has been solved.

Unlike the prosecutor, city police chief Vladimir Pronin refused to comment on whether the hit was politically motivated. "No, we cannot say that. ... All I can say is that a professional did the work," Pronin said, standing next to the prosecutor as criminologists continued to examine the murder site.

Investigators also were trying to determine whether the killing could have been connected to the killing of another Liberal Russia co-chairman last year. Vladimir Golovlyov, also an independent Duma deputy, was gunned down in Moscow in August, and his killing remains unsolved.

Yushenkov had received death threats some time "long ago," Liberal Russia's executive secretary Yuly Nesenevich said on television. He did not elaborate.

Leaders of Liberal Russia immediately described the killing as a political assassination.

"The murder is purely political in nature. ... I call it a continuation because Yushenkov is the second Liberal Russia co-chairman to be murdered," Yuly Rybakov, a prominent member of Liberal Russia and an independent Duma deputy, said in a telephone interview from his home in St. Petersburg.

"Liberal Russia has obviously become a bone in the throat for someone," said Rybakov, who said he had been assaulted and felt his own life was in danger.

Rybakov alleged that Yushenkov was killed for his efforts to find evidence to back up allegations that the Federal Security Service was involved in the apartment bombings that killed some 300 people in 1999. The authorities maintain that the bombings were ordered by Chechen-based warlords, and several natives of the North Caucasus have been brought to trial on charges of preparing and executing the bombings.

Duma Deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin, Yushenkov's co-chairman in Liberal Russia, said he believes the murder was a political hit aimed at bringing the liberal opposition "to its knees."

"It is clear that the murder has a political character," a visibly shaken Pokhmelkin told reporters who had gathered outside the police cordon. But he chose not to speculate on who could have been behind the killing and whether it could have been connected to the killing of Golovlyov.

The Kremlin press service reacted to the murder by saying that President Vladimir Putin had been informed and had expressed his condolences to Yushenkov's family and colleagues. "I am deeply shaken by the tragic news. ... A man who believed it was his duty to protect democratic freedoms and ideals is gone," the press service quoted Putin as saying.

The murder created a furor in the Duma, with most of the factions and all of the interviewed deputies calling the hit political.

"This is a particular challenge for society because this murder was committed on the day when Liberal Russia officially declared the completion of its registration by the Justice Ministry," Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov said.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
A police investigator photographing the scene of the killing. The numbers mark the spots where the spent cartridges were lying

Yushenkov and Golovlyov walked out of the Union of Right Forces at its founding congress in May 2001 to set up Liberal Russia after securing financing from controversial business tycoon Boris Berezovsky. The party was not officially founded until 2002, only to see the Justice Ministry turn down its registration bid in July, citing inconsistencies in its charter.

Back then, Yushenkov blamed the refusal on the Justice Ministry's unwillingness to see a party affiliated with Berezovsky operate in Russia. Soon enough, however, Yushenkov fell out with Berezovsky over the exiled tycoon's pledge to finance the left opposition.

Under Yushenkov's leadership, Liberal Russia's political council voted 9-4 with four abstentions to expel Berezovsky from the party. He tried to fight back, securing support from some of Liberal Russia's provincial branches. This splintered the party, but Yushenkov managed to solidify his loyalists and win the Justice Ministry's registration, sidelining Berezovsky.

NTV asked Berezovsky on Thursday evening whether he believed investigators might want to question him over the murder. "I would like very much to know who exactly gave the order," Berezovsky said. He sought to play down the split in Liberal Russia and alleged that the Kremlin could have ordered Yushenkov's murder.

In addition to taking pains to set up a viable alternative to the existing liberal powerhouses of Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, Yushenkov also participated in investigating the 1999 apartment bombings. Last year he and his colleagues promoted a Berezovsky-funded film that alleged that the FSB could have been involved in the bombings, but no solid evidence has been produced.

Sergei Yushenkov
Born in 1950 in a village located in what is now the northwestern Tver region, Yushenkov entered an academy for Soviet military political instructors in Siberia in 1974. He subsequently pursued an academic career, teaching Marxist philosophy at the Military Political Academy, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and earned a Ph.D.

Yushenkov left his teaching job in 1990 to pursue a political career as a democrat as the disintegration process gained speed across the Soviet Union. He was elected to the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation in 1990 and was among the deputies who resisted the coup attempt by hard-liners in August 1991. He became known to the general public after persuading a commander of a tank unit sent by the hard-liners to storm the White House to switch sides and support defenders of the parliament building led by Boris Yeltsin.

Yushenkov continued to support Yeltsin in the first few years of post-Communist Russia, but then fell out with the Kremlin after the beginning of the war in Chechnya in 1994.

Yushenkov is survived by his wife, daughter Yelena, 19, and son Alexei, 25.


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The Moscow Times, April 18, 2003

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