The main impression left by the last two weeks in Russian politics is of a growing power vacuum. This impression received graphic confirmation with the assassination of veteran reformer Galina Starovoitova in St. Petersburg on November 20. Previous high-profile contract killings, including the 1994 murder of reporter Dmitri Kholodov and the 1995 murder of TV journalist Vladislav Listiev, have yet to be solved. Few, therefore, took seriously President Boris Yeltsin’s announcement, made via his spokesman, that he had personally taken control over the Starovoitova case and would take all necessary steps the solve it. The public’s skepticism was reinforced over the next few days, when Yeltsin’s spokesman announced that the president, who for some time had already been unable to work a full day, had again been hospitalized, this time for pneumonia.
Some in the Kremlin no longer even bothered to sugar-coat the real state of affairs involving Yeltsin’s health. Oleg Sysuev, first deputy head of Yeltsin’s administration, told the RIA-Novosti news agency that Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov should be viewed as the person “who should take upon himself presidential powers if the situation persists.” In the wake of the Starovoitova murder, however, few observers were convinced that Primakov, were he to become head of state in the event of Yeltsin’s pre-term resignation, would be able to re-establish order. “Izvestia,” in a front-page commentary on November 24, declared: “In Russia today there is no state. It is dead.”
Other observers said that the vacuum was being filled by a “third force,” one separate from both the communist-led opposition and the “party of power,” Russia’s ruling establishment. Starovoitova’s murder, these observers said, showed that Russia was now ruled by criminals. Not surprisingly, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called for “emergency measures” to bring order to the country–and was immediately accused by his opponents, such as former Acting Premier Yegor Gaidar, of trying to employ tactics reminiscent of the Reichstag fire and the murder of Sergei Kirov. Yet the executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Boris Berezovsky, a tycoon who has been close to President Yeltsin and associated with the “democratic” camp, echoed Zyuganov. He stated that democratic methods had “exhausted” themselves.