Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 9

By Elena Chinyaeva

I was talking to a friend on the phone with the TV on when the news was announced that Sergei Yushenkov had been killed. In disbelief I told her the news, and heard the reply: “And who is Yushenkov?”

Sergei Yushenkov was, I was going to say, a well-known Duma deputy. He had a long history of political activity in the democratic camp, and at the time of his death was head of the opposition party “Liberal Russia.” But as the conversation with my friend suggested, Yushenkov was not that well-known outside political circles and, of course, the journalistic community.

The fact that Yushenkov was not a household name helps put into perspective the multitude of conspiracy theories that have surfaced to explain his murder. Speculating about who might benefit from Yushchenkov’s demise (Vladimir Putin? Boris Berezovsky?) is not going to lead us directly to the killer. It is too easy to say that liberals have always had it hard in Russia, and that, in a year of parliamentary elections, reactionary forces are capable of doing whatever is necessary to stop the democratic opposition from entering the State Duma. But Yushenkov was hardly a populist leader about to take the Kremlin by storm.

The real problem is that it is anyone’s guess as to exactly who had crossed paths with Yushenkov and might for some reason want him dead. Nobody has yet come up with a plausible guess to answer this question. Currently, there are three main lines of speculation–economic, political and personal. These are, in other words, the usual assortment of possibilities that police investigate in cases like this.

There have been more than a dozen assassinations or attempted assassinations of Duma deputies in Russia over the past decade. In April 1994, Andrei Aizderdzis was shot. In November 1994, Valentin Martemianov, from the Communist faction, was beaten up and died in the hospital. In February 1995, Sergei Skorochkin, a deputy from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s faction, was killed. In November of the same year, Sergei Markidonov, a deputy from the Stability faction, was killed by his drunken guard, who then committed suicide. In February 1996, Aleksandr Vengerovsky, also from Zhirinovksy’s faction, was wounded. In December 1996, Yury Polyakov, a People’s Power deputy, was kidnapped and killed. In July 1998, Lev Rokhlin, the leader of the Movement for the Support of the Army, was shot, and his wife convicted of the killing. In November 1998, Galina Starovoitova, a leader of the Democratic Russia party, was killed. In December 1999, Communist Viktor Ilyukhin was shot at but managed to escape. In March 2001, Bashir Kodzoev, from the Unity faction, was wounded, while his guard was killed. In August 2002, Vladimir Golovlev, deputy chairman of Liberal Russia was killed. That same month United Russia’s Magomed Tekeyev was shot at, and his assistant was killed. In November 2002, Sergei Shtogrin from the Agrarian faction, was beaten up in the elevator of his home building. In March 2003, Gadzhi Makhachev, from the People’s Deputy faction, was lightly wounded.

In most of these cases, business motives were cited as the main reason for the assassination, although it is worth remembering that business has always been connected to politics in Russia. (The fact that Duma deputies are immune from prosecution is an important factor that has encouraged some businessmen to enter politics.) The killing of Lev Rokhlin was the most salient of these cases. The retired general had become well-known as a vocal critic of the way that the first Chechen war was conducted. He then entered the Duma and became a leading opponent of President Boris Yeltsin and his policies. Despite his wife’s conviction (which she is appealing), many still believe that his murder was not a domestic affair but a politically motivated killing.

Of all the victims, only Galina Starovoitova and Vladimir Golovlev were members of the democratic parties. But even in these murders, money cannot be dismissed as a possible motive. Starovoitova allegedly was carrying a large sum of money, while Golovlev had previously been investigated by the procurator’s office in Chelyabinsk in connection with his activities as head of privatization in the regional administration.

Though it is said that Yushenkov was not involved in any business dealings, an economic rationale for the murder–as opposed to possible political and domestic reasons–has emerged here as well.

According to the daily Kommersant, Procurator General Vladimir Ustinov, who has taken the case under his special control, has already ordered a reinvestigation of the as yet unsolved Golovlev murder, so that the two cases can be investigated as one. The procurator’s office is particularly interested in details regarding the manner in which the party Liberal Russia is financed.

The heads of the regional offices of Liberal Russia were paid US$1,500 a month, a sizeable sum in the Russian provinces. Just hours before Yushenkov was gunned down the Justice Ministry had accepted documentation for the party’s branches in fifty-five Russian regions. That gave Liberal Russia the right to participate in the December parliamentary elections. The leadership celebrated with a small party held in the “National” restaurant, one of the most expensive in Moscow.

The history of Yushenkov’s party is a typical one for Russian democrats: It is a mix of personal ambitions, financial disorder, vocal scandals and political marginalization. The party was founded in March of 2002 as an opposition party by a group of deputies that included Sergei Yushenkov and Vladimir Golovlev. In January of 2002 they had split from the right-wing liberal Union of Right Forces. They founded the new party with the support of Boris Berezovsky, the notorious Russian oligarch who lives in exile in London.

At the time, the Ministry of Justice found that the party’s statute was not consistent with legislation on political parties and refused to register it. In October, Berezovsky proposed that liberals cooperate with the Communists in their opposition to the president. Yushenkov disgreed, and Berezovsky was expelled from the party, after which the party was registered by the ministry. But some regional branches continued to stand by Mr. Berezovsky, not least because of his financial resources, and the party effectively split. Yushenkov went on to build up the party, and suggested that the democratic forces should run as single bloc to be sure of entering the Duma. (Only parties receiving more than 5 percent of the votes win seats in the party list election which fills half the Duma.) This was not a particularly new idea. It pops up on the eve of every election in Russia, but has yet to actually produce a coalition that includes all the democratic parties.

After the quarrel with Berezovsky, some new sponsors for Liberal Russia were found, allegedly among some big Russian export-oriented companies. The general procurator’s investigation is apparently looking into the possibility of a conflict between the new sponsors and Yushenkov over the latter’s lavish spending. Also, Yushenkov may have been trying to reclaim funds accumulated in foreign accounts by his late ally Vladimir Golovlev during his tenure as the privatization chief in Chelyabinsk.

But more quixotic explanations for the murder cannot be ruled out. After all, it was an animal rights activist who gunned down Dutch libertarian leader Pim Fortuyn last May. Thus, on April 23 a 20-year-old Russian, Artem Stefanov, was arrested and later released. Five years earlier his father had been jailed after he wrote a threatening letter to Yushenkov. The letter was a response to Yushenkov’s criticism of the Chechen war.

As is the case with most other notorious murders–of deputies, journalists or state officials–that have occurred in Russia over the past decade, the truth in this one might never surface. This is a problem not only in Russia. For example, the assassin of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, gunned down in 1986, has still not been found. But such events are shocking exceptions in Holland and Sweden; in Russia they are becoming an all-too familiar part of the political landscape.

Elena Chinyaeva holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University and is a writer for Kommersant-Vlast, a leading Russian political weekly.