The murder last month of Galina Starovoitova, one of Russia’s leading democrats, touched off a wave of denunciations of crime and corruption which has not yet subsided. Last week President Yeltsin, making one of his ethereal excursions from his sickbed, took to the airwaves to tell Russians that fighting crime requires “strong power at the top.” But so heavy is the weight of history, and so deep is the interpenetration of money, influence, power and coercion, that the line between fighting crime and playing politics is very nearly gone. A typically twisted tale is the incursion of the tax police, lately placed under President Yeltsin’s direct control, into the homes and offices of one Sergei Lisovsky, a businessman with close ties to reputed billionaire and pro-Yeltsin political figure Boris Berezovsky. Police officers wearing ski masks reportedly strip-searched and beat Lisovsky’s employees. Lisovsky’s scheduled police interrogation was postponed after persons unknown assaulted his lawyer, leaving him hospitalized with a fractured skull.
Lisovsky’s business empire depends on Premier SV, an ad agency which has a monopoly on advertising on popular ORT television. Rumor links Lisovsky to the 1995 murder of a popular ORT anchorman who may have been close to a story implicating Lisovsky in corrupt business dealings.
The Russian government ostensibly owns a majority stake in ORT, but Berezovsky, who had a key role in bankrolling Yeltsin’s 1996 presidential campaign, exercises effective control of the network. In the past two months, the state agencies which run the transmitters ORT uses have threatened to demand payment of fees they are due, which would push ORT into bankruptcy. Berezovsky personally has been accused of making Yeltsin a silent partner in the network, and he has not effectively rebutted the charge.
Berezovsky does not lack for enemies. He claims the Federal Security Service (the former KGB) tried to kill him in 1997, and several FSS officers support his claim. In the last two months Berezovsky, who is Jewish, has used his media outlets to call for a ban on the Communist Party, for its failure to curb the anti-Semitic tirades of some of its prominent members. That has earned him further enmity from the fringes of the left and right.
In the breakaway Republic of Chechnya, the president called up the reserves as an anticrime measure, the criminals being his political opponents, who have better-armed and better-trained forces than the government. The opposition took the flip side of the argument, claiming that government law enforcement agencies have become marauding criminal bands. Islamic fundamentalist groups operating in Chechnya have threatened to carry their campaign into neighboring regions of the Russian Federation. Intelligence sources in independent Georgia, on Chechnya’s southern border, say Chechnya is a base for international terrorism, harboring training camps operated by Hezbollah, Hamas and Osama bin Laden. There are rumors that bin Laden is in Chechnya, having left Afghanistan after the American raids.