rare and dramatic arrest in a political murder-for-hire case took place February 6 in St. Petersburg. Local authorities took into custody Yuri Shutov, a member of the regional legislature and a prominent businessman, and charged him in connection with the murders of a St. Petersburg lawyer and a bank president. Eleven others, allegedly members of Shutov’s gang, were arrested with him. Authorities claim the arrests thwarted plans for another murder, this time of a member of the federal Duma. Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin said Shutov and his gang may be responsible for the murder last year of Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova, one of the country’s most admired democrats.

Shutov has lived for many years at the intersection of crime and politics. In 1981, he was jailed for stealing state property. Amnestied in 1986, he served for several months in 1990 as an adviser the head of the Leningrad city council, who fired him after learning of his background. In 1994, Shutov was attacked in his apartment and severely beaten with a hammer; no one has been charged in that assault. Running with the backing of the governor, Shutov won a legislative assembly seat in last December’s regional elections. He also serves as chairman of the St. Petersburg branch of a parliamentary commission reviewing the legality of past privatizations, a post some claim he uses as a base for extortion.

Shutov has links to Russia’s ultranationalists. He served as an aide to Sergei Baburin, a member of the federal Duma and a leading advocate of restoration of the Soviet Union. In a newspaper column Shutov recently attacked the new head of the Federal Security Service, Vladimir Putin, as a German spy. Baburin suggested that the attack on Putin was the real reason for Shutov’s arrest.

A conviction in this case would be a signal achievement. Any arrest in a high-profile murder is rare, and a conviction even rarer. Shutov has beaten the rap once before, when authorities dropped charges against him of membership in a criminal organization and illegal possession of ammunition. This time, against the backdrop of strong anticrime rhetoric from Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and the rest of the government, the prosecution may have more success.