POLITICS IN RUSSIA, MURDER AND POISONING

POLITICS IN RUSSIA

The word “vlast” describes a web of power that emanates form the Kremlin. It includes the inner circle of advisors that surround Putin, the upper levels of the state bureaucracy and the security services.

Personal connections, personalities retain impact in politics as national parties develop slowly, government figures avoid party affiliation; shifting coalitions typical in State Duma (Russian legislature). Power struggles have traditionally taken place within parties rather than between them. This has become the case under Putin as his party has firmed up its complete control and what matter is the rank within the party and access to Putin.

It has been said that popular opinions means little in Russian politics, What matters is having the trust and support of elites in the military, the intellectual community, the media, the regional governors, the security services and the oligarchs. Remnick wrote, "Moscow is a city of terrific political gossip, most of it melodramatic." Some politicians pressure factory directors who depend on government credits to support their party.

Political pressure groups and leaders:; 1) Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR); 2) Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia; 3) Golos Association in Defense of Voters' Rights; 4) Memorial; 5) Movement Against Illegal Migration; 6) Russkiye; 7) Solidarnost; 8) The World Russian People's Congress; 9) Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers; 10) Union of Russian Writers; 11) other: business associations; environmental organizations; religious groups (especially those with Orthodox or Muslim affiliation); veterans groups. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Richard Sakwa covers Russian politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union in his textbook “Russian Politics and Society.” Among books with useful sections on Russian politics are “After the Soviet Union: From Empire to Nation”, edited by Timothy J. Colton and Robert Legvold, and “Russia and the New States of Eurasia” by Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott. Prognoses of the future of reform in Russia are given in Anders Aslund's "Russia's Success Story," the "Russia Symposium" in the Journal of Democracy on the theme "Is Russian Democracy Doomed?," and Russia 2010 by Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson.

Political Issues in Russia

Putin has lashed out against the practice of giving foreign aid to political parties in Russia, accusing Westerners of meddling in Russian politics and blaming their activities for bringing down the governments in several former Soviet states. Relatively few mass protects against the failure to pay wages and the bloody, unpopular Chechnya War After losing the election by 13 points in 1996, Gennady Zyuganov said, "Why should I consider myself a loser? In such an impoverished country, there are no winners."

In the 1990s, Boris Nemtsov, thirty-seven, gained immediate popularity with ordinary Russians in his new post as deputy prime minister by attacking monopolies and bureaucratic corruption; in April 1996, Nemtsov was named Russia's most trusted politician in two nationwide polls, although most experts called his reform program virtually impossible. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The émigré sociologist Vladimir Shlapentokh observed in 1996 that personal gain had become the most important value in Russian society and that the newly democratized government institutions offered little authority against dishonest behavior because those institutions are themselves rife with corruption. The inability of government to maintain law and order through its democratic institutions has provoked authoritarian behavior by the Yeltsin administration, whose security agencies have maintained a large share of their Soviet-era autonomy. *

Political Reform After the Break Up of Soviet Union

The democratization of the political system has followed an equally bumpy path in Russia's first post-Soviet years. As with economic reform, some elements of political reform appeared under Gorbachev in the late 1980s. The policy of glasnost allowed public discussion of hitherto taboo subjects, including the wisdom of government economic policy in a time of serious economic decline. As the Soviet Union's regional jurisdictions clamored for various degrees of sovereignty, Boris Yeltsin led Russia's challenge to Soviet authority in a number of areas. In 1991 Russians elected Yeltsin president of their republic in a free election; the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991 made Yeltsin the most powerful man in Russia, which shortly became an independent state. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

From the very beginning, Yeltsin's attempts to promulgate reform programs from the office of the presidency encountered stiff opposition from antireform factions in the legislative branch. Beginning in 1994, that opposition was centered in the State Duma. After Yeltsin used military force to overcome an open rebellion against his dismissal of the parliament in October 1993, he achieved passage of a new constitution that prescribed a strong executive and reduced the powers of the legislative branch. However, the first two legislative elections, in 1993 and 1995, seated large numbers of deputies from the KPRF, the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (Liberal'no-demokraticheskaya partiya Rossii--LDPR), and other nationalist and antireform groups. Under worsening economic conditions, a seemingly unstoppable crime wave, and a highly unpopular war in Chechnya, Yeltsin's popularity plummeted in 1995 and early 1996. His response was a contradictory series of personnel and agency shifts at top government levels, together with presidential decrees that often reversed the movement toward democratic governance. By early 1996, virtually all reformist officials had been removed from positions of influence, and a group of hard-liners, led by presidential security chief Aleksandr Korzhakov, Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, and Minister of Internal Affairs Anatoliy Kulikov, seemingly had the president's ear.*

By that time, Yeltsin's authoritarian use of executive power had combined with the Chechnya imbroglio to lose him the support of the democratic and reformist factions that had been active promoters of early reform policies. As he engaged in an uphill presidential campaign, Yeltsin made lavish promises of government aid to unemployed workers and state enterprises, and allegations of corruption in the latest phase of the privatization program forced him to remain silent about that aspect of his administration.*

By 1996 the reforms envisioned in 1992 had reached a plateau quite short of their final goals. Cynicism, corruption, and the president's long period of inactivity had sapped the momentum of reform programs, and an entrenched bureaucracy blocked further initiatives. In 1997 Russia remained an international power in some respects, but its search for ways to preserve that status was increasingly uncertain.*

Optimists point to the next generation of Russians, who will have formed their civic habits independent of Soviet influence, as the basis of democratic renewal and a new civil society. The three orderly and fair national elections of 1993-96 offer some hope for this prognosis. The relative calm with which Russians have accepted the agonies of transition has provided an opportunity for new institutions to develop, but such a passive public attitude may not bode well for participatory democracy. Western influences, which were vital to the postcommunist progress of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, have penetrated Russia only in random fashion, and they met increasing resistance in the mid-1990s. That resistance has dampened the government's commitment to economic and political reform and obscured the prognosis for the transition process.*

Political Violence in Russia

At least nine politician were murdered in Russian between the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and 2002. In a two year period between 1997 and 1999, a dozen legislative aides were murdered. Most were later found to have had criminal ties. Other victims with political or bureaucratic ties have included an education administrator, the head of a national sports foundation, two deputy mayors and several district administrators. The head of Russia’s notaries was shot dead in his apartment doorway in 2000. The education mister, who survived, said his attackers were likely connected to gangster who had been pressing him for a share of a city textbook market. A deputy railway is believed to have been killed because of his efforts to clamp down on the market for phony bus and railway tickets.

In May 1994, two Kalashnikov-carrying men were involved in a shoot-out in Moscow. One of the gunmen, a reputed Georgian organized crime figure was shot dead. The other, who survived— Sergei Skorochkin—was regarded as reform-minded member of Parliament. He was not charged with a crime because legislators have immunity from prosecution.

In other incidents a candidate for office suffered burns and shrapnel wounds when a remote-control bomb was set off at the entrance to his Moscow apartment; and a businessman-legislator was shot outside his apartment. A group of senior officials in the Interior Ministry sold weapons and ran a protection ring for well-connected gangsters, killers and kidnappers. In 2003, two prominent liberal politicians were killed: one by gunfire, one by poisoning.

Murdered Politicians

In November 1998, Galina Starovoitova, one of Russia's most popular politicians, was gunned down in the stairwell outside her St. Petersburg apartment. She had been tracked like an animal by her killers, who also seriously wounded one of her aides. She was an old-style democrat, who supported the dissident Andrei Sakarov. She was Planning to run for president in 2000.

The killing was believed to have been a political assassination. No one was arrested in the case, no on knows why she was killed and the police were largely ineffectual in their investigation of the crime. Starovoitova's aide recovered. The assassination was said to be retaliation for her challenges against General Albert Makashov, a hardliner notorious for his anti-Semitic outbursts. Some 20,000 people including many political heavyweights showed up for her funeral.

In August 1997, St. Petersburg politician Mikhail Manevich was shot five times on a busy street by a sniper with a powerful long-range rifle. The crime was believed to have been carried out by a former member of the Spetsanz, the secret Russian special forces. Vladislav Listyev, one of Russia's most loved television personalities and head of Russia's largest television station, was gunned down in a Mafia-style hit by a hired gunman in 1995.

Other murdered politicians have included Mikhail Manevich, a St. Petersburg deputy mayor killed by sniper in August 1997; and Victor Novosysolov, a St. Petersburg legislator decapitated by a bomb that blew up his car in October 1999. Boris Fydororov, a Yeltsin fund raiser arrested on narcotics charges was shot down but survived.

Poisonings of Politicians and Journalists

Masha Gessen wrote in The New Yorker: Russian activists and journalists who get enough death threats and take them sufficiently seriously to hire bodyguards are also usually careful about what they ingest. Soon after the chess champion Garry Kasparov quit the sport to go into politics full time, in 2004, he hired a team of eight bodyguards, who not only accompanied him everywhere but also carried drinking water and food for Kasparov to eat at meals shared in public. Three years ago, Kasparov told me that what he liked most about foreign travel was being able to shed his bodyguards for a while. A year after that, threats drove him to leave Russia permanently. [Source: Masha Gessen, The New Yorker , May 28, 2015]

“Attacks by poisoning are possibly even more common in Russia than assassinations by gunfire. Most famously, Alexander Litvinenko, a secret-police whistle-blower, was killed by polonium in London, in 2006.” In 2015 “British newspapers reported that a Russian businessman who dropped dead while jogging in a London suburb in 2012 had been killed by a rare plant poison. He had been a key witness in a money-laundering case that had originally been exposed by the Moscow accountant Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured to death, in 2009, in a Russian jail.

Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in 2006. “Two years before Politkovskaya was shot, she suffered multiple-organ failure after ingesting a poison, still unidentified, with tea served to her on a Russian plane. Yuri Shchekochikhin, her colleague at the investigative weekly Novaya Gazeta, died in a Moscow hospital, in 2003, as the result of an apparent poisoning. In 2008, a lawyer who specializes in bringing Russian cases to the European Court of Human Rights, Karinna Moskalenko, fell ill in Strasbourg; her husband and two small children were also unwell. The cause of their illness was identified as mercury that had somehow found its way into their car.

Moskalenko was one of the lead lawyers in the defense of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon who had become Putin’s most famous political prisoner. He spent ten years behind bars before Putin granted him clemency before the Sochi Olympics; he is now living in Zurich and running an anti-Putin N.G.O., Open Russia, with offices in London, Prague, and Moscow. Last month, the Moscow office was raided by law enforcement, which seized many of the computers. (Some have since been returned.) Kara-Murza runs Open Russia’s multi-city public-lecture program—a difficult job, because most cities in Russia try to shut down his events. The organization itself has so far escaped being shut down because, on paper, it doesn’t exist: using a loophole in the law, it has simply not registered—and hence cannot be liquidated the way many other Russian N.G.O.s have been in the past three years.

Boris Nemtsov— Popular Politician and Putin Critic— Killed in Moscow

In February 2015, Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed on a sidewalk near the Kremlin. Some blamed President Vladimir Putin's administration.Michael Birnbaum and William Branigin wrote in the Washington Post, “Nemtsov, a towering figure in Russian post-Soviet politics and a biting critic of President Vladimir Putin, was gunned down steps from the Kremlin. The drive-by shooting had the potential to open a violent new chapter in Russian political life. [Source: Michael Birnbaum and William Branigin, Washington Post, February 28, 2015 ***]

“Nemtsov, a physicist-turned-politician who was seen in the 1990s as a possible heir to President Boris Yeltsin, was one of the loudest voices condemning Russia’s sharp turn toward confrontation with the West in the past year. The killing sent immediate shock waves through Russia, where he became the highest-profile opposition leader to be slain in a nation where such figures are sometimes imprisoned or pushed to emigrate. ***

There was no immediate information on who killed the 55-year-old politician as he walked across a central Moscow bridge shortly before midnight on an unusually warm winter’s night. Putin said it bore the marks of a contract killing intended to embarrass the Kremlin, a spokesman said. Opposition leaders said they were sure that it was an attempt to intimidate them.The killing was a dramatic and bloody turn for Russia’s oppressed opposition movement, which has struggled to find its footing during a wave of nationalistic fervor unleashed by the annexation of Ukraine’s semiautonomous Crimean region” in 2014. “Many leaders have been marginalized with prison terms or other forms of harassment, and public rhetoric has grown extremely aggressive toward those who deviate from the majority line. The shooting came a day before a rally at which opposition leaders had been hoping to breathe fresh life into their cause. Nemtsov was one of the main organizers. ***

“Politically motivated slayings are not unknown in Russia, but not once in the 24 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union has such a high-profile figure been the victim. Shaken opposition leaders said in the hours after Nemtsov’s slaying that they were newly fearful, but they vowed to carry on. It was not immediately clear whether they would hold the rally. Just hours before his death, Nemtsov told Ekho Moskvy radio that Putin had pushed Russia into an economic crisis through his “mad, aggressive and deadly policy of war against Ukraine.” ***

“The killing took place as Nemtsov walked in the heart of Moscow across the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge, less than 100 yards from the walls of the Kremlin and within sight of Red Square, one of the most secure areas in all of Russia. Police and secret services have a heavy presence in the region. There was no word on whether Putin was in the Kremlin at the time; he typically sleeps at a presidential residence on the outskirts of Moscow.“Nemtsov’s murder is a terrible tragedy for Russia,” said former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, one of the few Putin allies who is also publicly critical of him.” ***

“Nemtsov was shot four times, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Yelena Alexeeva told journalists at the scene. Authorities were questioning witnesses, including a Ukrainian woman with whom Nemtsov was walking across the bridge when he was shot, Alexeeva said. Images broadcast after his slaying showed his body lying face-up on the sidewalk of the bridge as emergency personnel appeared to attend to him.

Fall Out of the Boris Nemtsov Murder

Michael Birnbaum and William Branigin wrote in the Washington Post, “Putin quickly condemned the killing and said he was directing Russia’s top security officials to take personal charge of the investigation, a measure of the shock waves that it sent through the political establishment. “Putin noted that this cruel murder has every sign of being a contract killing, which has a solely provocative nature,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies. [Source: Michael Birnbaum and William Branigin, Washington Post, February 28, 2015 ***]

Russian opposition leaders said Saturday that they were fearful that Nemtsov’s slaying was only the first in a new era of political repression. “This murder, politically, it hits the spot, because if the message is to send a scare throughout the opposition movement, this is one thing to do,” said Vladimir Milov, an opposition leader who alongside Nemtsov had been planning the Sunday rally. “Scared or not scared, we will carry on,” he said. ***

Milov said he did not think it would be the last killing of an opposition leader in Russia. “This is a new level, but as sad as it may sound, we have to expect a continuation. Because this is just how Russia operates now,” he said. In 2012, Putin warned publicly that his opponents were prepared to murder one of their own so they could blame him for the death. “They are looking for a so-called sacrificial victim among some prominent figures,” Putin, a former KGB agent, told a gathering of the All-Russia Popular Front, a group organized to support him, ahead of Russia’s 2012 presidential election. “They will knock him off, I beg your pardon, and then blame the authorities for that.”

Nemtsov said earlier this month that he was worried that Putin would have him killed. “A bit” worried, Nemtsov told the Sobesednik magazine. “Not as much as my mother, but still.” “If I were very fearful,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t head an opposition party. I probably wouldn’t be involved in what I do.”

Boris Nemtsov’s Political Career

Michael Birnbaum and William Branigin wrote in the Washington Post, “Nemtsov was a political star in the early post-Soviet days, when most Russians still dreamed of democracy — a young, energetic and smart politician who charmed voters and won high approval ratings as a regional governor and then as Russia’s deputy prime minister. For a time, he was seen as a likely heir to Yeltsin, who served from 1991 to 1999 as the first president of the Russian Federation. Instead, Putin assumed the presidency in December 1999 and set about relentlessly marginalizing his opponents. He has held power in one capacity or another since then. [Source: Michael Birnbaum and William Branigin, Washington Post, February 28, 2015 ***]

“Nemtsov received a doctorate in physics in 1990 and then served as a lawmaker for three years. Yeltsin appointed him governor of Nizhny Novgorod province in 1991. He was a key architect of Russia’s no-holds-barred moves toward capitalism, instituting free-market economic policies and simplifying the nightmarish and corrupt processes of registering new businesses. Nemtsov was so popular that the Yeltsin camp of reformers briefly considered running him for president in 1996, but nothing came of the effort. Nemtsov reluctantly accepted the office of first deputy prime minister after Yeltsin was reelected in 1997. ***

“As deputy prime minister, Nemtsov spearheaded a program of economic “shock therapy” designed to haul Russia out of its post-Soviet doldrums. He sought to make bidding on government contracts more competitive and transparent. His efforts earned him the ire of Russia’s notorious oligarchs, the powerful businessmen who were accused of looting the nation’s assets after the fall of the Communist government. ***

“More recently, Nemtsov had been working on a report that he said would prove that Russian soldiers were fighting alongside pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, where a bloody 11-month-conflict has claimed nearly 5,800 lives. The Kremlin has hotly denied any direct involvement, which Russian opinion polls suggest would be deeply unpopular.He had angered the government two years ago when he charged that billions of dollars had been stolen from funds designated for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, his home town. He blamed “Putin’s friends” for the alleged embezzlement, which he described as “a real threat to Russia’s national security.” ***

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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