By Brian Whitmore
ST. PETERSBURG--The investigation into the assassination of federal lawmaker Galina Starovoitova has taken a bizarre and sinister twist: Local journalists are being interrogated and pressured into giving testimony against her press secretary, Ruslan Linkov, who survived the November 20 attack.
Prior to these interrogations, stories began appearing in the local media under the influence of St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev--a staunch political opponent of Starovoitova--suggesting that Linkov was a suspect and had faked injury in the attack to avoid suspicion.
Moreover, the leadership of the different law enforcement agencies participating in the investigation have made conflicting public comments, giving the impression that they are divided about how to proceed. At a news conference earlier this month, for example, Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov chastised Linkov for not cooperating with the investigation. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin told reporters on January 27 that Linkov is "actively" cooperating with the investigation.
Starovoitova was killed by unknown assassins on the night of November 20 as she ascended the stairs to her apartment at 91 Canal Griboyevova. Linkov survived the attack despite being shot in the head and neck.
During her political career, Starovoitova made some powerful enemies, including St. Petersburg Governor Yakovlev, the General Prosecutor's Office and the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor organization to the KGB.
Starovoitova was investigating Yakovlev's alleged ties to organized crime, and had laid hands on a tape linking Yakovlev to the local mafia group which controls the city's cemetery business. She was also investigating the General Prosecutor's Office, which she accused of working as a political tool for Gennady Zyuganov's Communist Party. Starovoitova also angered the FSB with her active support of retired Navy captain and environmentalist Aleksandr Nikitin, who stands accused of espionage for revealing the Russian North Sea Fleet's handling of nuclear waste.
Yakovlev did not attend Starovoitova's funeral and failed to appear in public until a week after the assassination, with his press service giving contradictory information about his whereabouts. Soon after the governor surfaced, local television, which is firmly under his control, began broadcasting programs that accused Starovoitova's liberal allies--former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais--of plotting her murder to create a martyr for their political cause.
According to Linkov, Skuratov's Prosecutor General's Office wants "to find dirt on Galina Vasilyevna [Starovoitova] which doesn't exist. When I don't give them what they want they call that not cooperating with the investigation." Linkov said that Interior Minister Stepashin and FSB director Vladimir Putin--both of whom had good relations with Starovoitova--are sincerely trying to solve the crime, but "don't seem to have control over their respective bureaucracies." Recent events in St. Petersburg seem to support Linkov's claims, as the local branch of the FSB and Interior Ministry have been calling in Linkov's friends, most of them journalists, and asking questions most describe as irrelevant, absurd and offensive.
One journalist, Daniel Kotsubinsky of the weekly local newspaper "Chas Pik," said his interrogator told him that the youth wing of Starovoitova's political party regularly held orgies with animals. Kotsubinsky said Interior Ministry Detective Mikhail Balukhta tried to get him to confirm such behavior. Tatyana Likhanova, another journalist interrogated, now works as a legislative aide to State Duma Deputy Yuly Rybakov, an artist, human rights advocate and Soviet-era dissident who was one of Starovoitova's closest friends and allies. Likhanova said that during her three-hour interrogation Balukhta gleefully informed her that he had personally detained Rybakov fifteen times during the Soviet period for taking part in pro-democracy meetings--adding that he considered Rybakov to be a suspect in Starovoitova's murder. "At the end of the interrogation he said to me: 'We are going to solve this case in such a way that it buries your democratic movement,'" Likhanova said. "He also said that he understands why people would want to kill Starovoitova, since 'She was always defending ethnic minorities and has never done anything for the Russian people.'"
I am one of the reporters who has been asked to give testimony. I received a subpoena on Friday and must report to St. Petersburg FSB headquarters on January 28. According to the Russian Criminal Code, because I am being called as a witness, I am not allowed to have an attorney present during questioning. Moreover, the FSB has steadfastly denied my requests, as an American citizen, to have a U.S. Consular officer present during questioning. They have also denied a similar official request from the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg.
On the evening of January 20, I received a call from an FSB investigator calling himself Aleksandr Andreev, asking me to come in for questioning about my contacts with Linkov, whom I have known for over two years. When I said I would come in only if accompanied by a consular officer, he tried to dissuade me and saying there was nothing to be afraid of. On January 22, when I showed up at FSB headquarters--known by locals as the Bolshoi Dom [Big House]--Andreev took my passport and said the consular officer accompanying me was not allowed to be present during my interrogation. "Our Russian law forbids this," he said. I then said that I would not agree to be interrogated without a formal subpoena, citing the Russian Criminal Code. Andreev then left in a huff--with my passport--vowing to return with a subpoena. He did so, serving me with one for Thursday, January 28, at 10:00 a.m.
Other local journalists have already been interrogated by local investigators and by the FSB last week. All are friends of Linkov. All reported being asked leading questions about Linkov's personal life. Kotsubinsky, for example, was called in for questioning on January 21 by Interior Ministry Detective Balukhta. "They dealt with me personally in a fairly normal manner, but it was clear that they wanted to hear something bad about Ruslan or Starovoitova," Kotsubinsky said, adding that about 80 percent of the questions were attempts to wean damaging or embarrassing material about Linkov. "At one point I was asked: 'Don't you think Ruslan Linkov is an immoral person?'"
Kotsubinsky said that investigators also asked questions both about the Young Christian Democrats, the youth wing of Starovoitova's political party Democratic Russia, and about Rybakov, one of Starovoitova's closest friends and colleagues. He also said they paid particular attention to Linkov's personal life. "They asked me who Linkov's girlfriends and lovers were. When I said I didn't know, they followed up with a question about what were his relations with Starovoitova," Kotsubinsky said.
The next day, Balukhta called Likhanova, who is also a close friend of Linkov's, in for questioning. She also reported being interrogated, in a leading way, about Linkov's personal life. Likhanova has worked a several local newspapers, including the weekly tabloid "MK v Pietere," from which she was fired as politics editor last March after publishing several exposes on corruption in the Yakovlev administration.
"I am simply at a loss for words," Rybakov said in an interview on January 25. "This behavior shows that the FSB in St. Petersburg is in the hands of our opponents who want to use this tragedy to slander Galina and her allies. She can't defend herself, so they are trying to discredit her and those who were close to her. These are typical KGB methods, and they show the low intellectual level of these people." "The whole thing was absurd and offensive," Likhanova said, adding that Balukhta questioned her about a feature article she wrote last year about the 69 Club, a local gay nightclub. "He asked me what I thought about homosexuality." She also said that Balukhta pressured her--albeit carefully--during the interrogation. Likhanova is now the editor of the newspaper "Severnaya Stolitsa," which is tied to the local political movement of the same name which Starovoitova and Rybakov founded last summer. Three days prior to Starovoitova's death, "Severnaya Stolitsa" published an investigative story accusing Gennady Seleznev, the Communist Speaker of the State Duma, of abusing his post to pressure businesses into giving his party campaign contributions. On the day of Starovoitova's funeral, Seleznev filed an 800,000-ruble libel suit against "Severnaya Stolitsa" naming Likhanova as a defendant. Likhanova said that Balukhta tried to get her to reveal the sources for that story and told her he could help her with the lawsuit if she gave him "what he wanted."
What he wanted, according to Likhanova, was incriminating information about Linkov, Rybakov and the Young Christian Democrats. Likhanova also said that Balukhta openly showed his contempt for Starovoitova and her allies during the interrogation. "He [Balukhta] said, 'I know all about your and Rybakov's underground activities," said Likhanova, who, along with Linkov and Starovoitova, was also active in St. Petersburg's perestroika-era democracy movement. "The questions which investigators are asking journalists and my friends during these interrogations show that the FSB is continuing in the spirit and style of the KGB. That organization is completely unreformed," said Linkov in an interview on January 25.
The interrogations follow what can only be described as a smear campaign against Linkov in the St. Petersburg media. Earlier this month, the newspaper "Komsomolskaya pravda," which is rumored to have close ties to the local FSB and the Yakovlev administration, ran a story based entirely on an interview with local television producer Aleksandr Borisoglebsky, the first person on the scene after Starovoitova was killed.
Borisoglebsky, a close associate of right-wing television journalist Aleksandr Nevzorov, said that Linkov might have participated in the assassination. As evidence, he claimed Linkov had not been injured in the attack--an absurd suggestion rejected out of hand by doctors and law enforcement officers, and also by journalists, myself included, who have visited Linkov in the hospital. Linkov and Starovoitova's relatives are suing Borisoglebsky and Komsomolskaya Pravda for libel over the article.
An article in the weekly "Novy Petersburg," meanwhile, suggested that former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais--who move in the same political circles Starovoitova did--had killed her to create a martyr for their political cause. The paper compared gunning down Starovoitova to the Nazis setting fire to the Reichstag as a prelude to taking power.
Brian Whitmore is a political reporter and columnist who covers city politics for the St. Petersburg Times. He is also a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government and International Studies at the University of South Carolina.