Was the April 17 murder of the prominent Russian reformist legislator, Sergei Yushenkov, connected with his opposition to the Putin administration’s war on Chechnya? Perhaps some deathbed confession or leak from secret archives will provide a definitive answer to that question many years from now. But Yushenkov is the tenth member of the Russian parliament to be murdered since 1994, and not one of those murders has been solved.
It is agreed by almost all observers that the murder could not have been connected with Yushenkov’s personal life or business dealings. (The only exceptions are those with a clear interest in diverting suspicion away from Russia’s security agencies, such as Vladimir Gordienko, head of the criminal-investigation directorate of the Ministry of the Interior. He was quoted by the weekly “Moskovskie novosti” as suggesting that the reasons for the murder might be found in “the personal life of the deputy.”) Unlike most of his colleagues, Yushenkov was known for his utter lack of interest in business and financial matters; even his far-left opponents in the Duma agreed that he was untainted by corruption. A quick survey of leading politicians and businessmen by the Moscow daily “Kommersant” found that most believed that the murder was a political rather than a commercial affair.
Yushenkov was shot dead at the entrance to his apartment building on his return from work, just hours after the reformist party “Liberal Russia,” which he co-chaired, received its formal registration to take part in the parliamentary elections scheduled for December of this year. The party opposes the Putin administration on many issues. It seeks radical political and economic reform based on the free-market theories of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, for example. But the most contentious of these issues is Chechnya.
A retired colonel, Yushenkov had special credibility as an anti-war leader. He was an active opponent of both Boris Yeltsin’s and Vladimir Putin’s invasions of Chechnya, and he took a particular interest in the 1999 apartment house bombings that the Kremlin used to stir up anti-Chechen passions on the eve of the second invasion. Yushenkov pushed for a Duma resolution demanding a full investigation of the bombings, and worked with survivors and relatives who believed that the bombings were really the work of the FSB. The resolution was defeated, but Yushenkov continued to co-chair an independent group of human rights advocates working on the issue. He cooperated with Putin’s former ally, the self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, in producing a documentary film on the FSB’s role in the bombings. (Yushenkov and his party later broke with Berezovsky over other issues.)
Agence France-Presse reported on April 20 that a relative of one of the victims of the 1999 explosions said she had “no doubt that the killing of Yushenkov is linked to his role in the investigation into the Moscow blasts.” Alyona Morozova, now seeking political asylum in the United States, told the French news agency: “A year ago, I took part with him in the presentation of the film ‘Attack on Russia’ in the U.S. Congress. After the screening we were told: Our activities have angered the FSB, and sooner or later they will remind us of it. Now he’s dead.” Morozova said she fears that her own life will be in danger if she returns to Russia.
On April 22 the website Polit.ru reported that several members of “Liberal Russia” had suffered attacks. They included physical beatings after the public showing of the film “Attack on Russia” in Perm and St. Petersburg.
In an open letter to Putin, Duma deputy Sergei Kovalev demanded that the investigation into the murder consider the possibility that the president’s own political supporters were involved. “The people who ordered and organized Yushenkov’s death…could be people who are supporting the current vector of political development in Russia, secret or open co-authors of this course–in other words, your supporters,” he wrote.