Starovoitova Murder Unites Russia

MOSCOW (Reuters)–Russia’s political landscape was transformed at the weekend by the murder of a liberal parliamentarian which united people in mourning and fear.

On Monday President Boris Yeltsin hosts Chinese President Jiang Zemin–a visit that in previous weeks would have been accompanied by fresh speculation about Yeltsin’s health and worries over Russia’s future role on the international scene.

Russia is also hosting a delegation from the International Monetary Fund in the hope of receiving desperately needed loans despite IMF criticism of the government’s economic plans.

But news of the killing of Galina Starovoitova–a human rights advocate and outspoken democratic political leader–drove the country’s economic woes and political wrangling off television screens and out of dinner table talk.

Throughout Sunday–mourners lit candles and laid flowers by the St. Petersburg apartment where Starovoitova–52–was ambushed in a stairwell by two attackers and gunned down on Friday night.

An aide–Ruslan Linkov–was severely wounded in the attack and remained in hospital where his ward was under heavy guard. There were conflicting reports about his condition and it was unclear how much information he could give police.

The Armenian parliament stood in a minute of silence on Monday in memory of Galina Starovoitova–a liberal Russian deputy–murdered late last week in Saint-Petersburg by unknown gunmen.

One of the leaders of the perestroika-era democracy movement–Starovoitova represented Armenia from 1989 to 1991 in the last Soviet parliament–the Congress of People’s Deputies. She was among few members of the largely rubber-stamp legislature to have won a free election in one of Yerevan’s electoral districts.

Starovoitova enjoyed huge popularity among Armenia’s in the late 1980s due to her vocal support of a mass movement for the unification of Soviet Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh–then part of Soviet Azerbaijan. She has maintained close contacts with the leaders of that movement–who subsequently ended 70 years of Communist rule in Armenia following first democratic elections of 1990.

On behalf of Armenian deputies–the speaker of parliament–Khosrov Harutiunian–paid tribute to Starovoitova–condemning her "savage murder." An official delegation of the Armenian parliament will attend her funeral on Tuesday.

Like the death of Princess Diana for Britain–or the slaying of President John Kennedy in the United States–the murder struck a chord across the political spectrum.

Liberals and their opponents alike expressed outrage at the killing and shock at the level of violence in the country. The Kremlin–which issued an eloquent eulogy–said Yeltsin had taken direct control of the investigation.

Russia has seen waves of political violence and organized crime. Starovoitova was the sixth deputy of the State Duma lower house of parliament killed since the house was founded in 1993.

But there was broad agreement over the weekend that the assassination of a woman not known to have significant business dealings was unlike previous killings.

The funeral planned for Tuesday looks set to become a highly publicized national event–although Yeltsin’s uncertain health makes the president’s own attendance unlikely.

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