1 in 10 in Trouble at St. Pete City Council

ST. PETERSBURG -- As of late last week, 10 percent of St. Petersburg's Legislative Assembly was either under criminal investigation, in jail awaiting trial, sitting in a psychiatric hospital after having been forcibly admitted or dead at the hands of hit men.

Since the city council only has 50 members, collecting 10 percent of them is perhaps not terribly dramatic. And in a city that has been dubbed "Russia's crime capital," some are unmoved at the thought of a 10th of the legislature murdered, jailed, committed or under investigation.

"It is very sad that there are legislators in the assembly who have been arrested and put in jail," said city council member Vladimir Belozerskikh. He continued, in a philosophical vein: "But then again, we should remember that as the parliament it represents the city's community, 5 percent of which are bandits and 25 percent of which are involved in the shadow economy."

Perhaps. But Governor Vladimir Yakovlev and the Legislative Assembly have been engaged over the past four years in a constant tug-of-war for power. And many Petersburg-watchers simply assume that the legislature has been under politically motivated siege.

"These arrests and investigations serve two purposes," said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a telephone interview.

"First, central powers wish to put Yakovlev on notice that he had better clean the mob element out of his city and cooperate with the new powers that be.

"Second, and most importantly, Yakovlev and regional governors everywhere are being put on notice that power will flow from the center - from Moscow - and not from their regional administrations."

Yakovlev stands for re-election on May 14 and appears to be the hands-down favorite. The only serious challenger, Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko, was first endorsed by President-elect Vladimir Putin, then asked by him to step out of the race.

"It is an ugly political scene," said Boris Vishnevsky, a member of the Yabloko party in St. Petersburg.

Both Yabloko's Vishnevsky and Carnegie's Petrov argued that the law enforcement moves against individuals at the city council was mostly aimed at Yakovlev's allies.

"That Yakovlev still exists politically means there is a dirty fight afoot in Putin's St. Petersburg group," Petrov said. "[Putin's circle] could have sent [Yakovlev] packing long ago, but there are still dirty elements that want him. The best they can do now is isolate him by taking away selected allies."

The latest St. Petersburg city council arrest was of lawmaker Sergei Shevchenko, who was jailed last week pending trial on charges of extorting $50,000 from a local magazine.

Shevchenko, with his brother Vyacheslav, runs a minor entertainment empire on St. Petersburg's Nevsky Prospekt. It includes the Hollywood Nites nightclub and the Golden Dolls strip club. Shevchenko and Yakovlev had recently had a dispute over a city construction job.

Earlier this month, local lawmaker Alexander Kovalyov came under the prosecutor's scrutiny for allegedly embezzling city funds from his so-called "reserve fund" - a trough of cash that each deputy is given to spend on improvements in his or her region.

Deputy Vladimir Snyatkov was also questioned last week about the use of his reserve fund. According to a police source who declined to be named, Snyatkov is now under involuntary care in a psychiatric hospital, supposedly because of the stress of the investigation.

The Kovalyov and Shevchenko investigations round out an eight-month period in which the legislature has seen brazen voting fraud to change the gubernatorial election date, fist fights and the dramatic murder in October of the legislature's speaker, Viktor Novosyolov.

Unknown assassins placed a bomb on the roof of Novosyolov's car when it had stopped at a traffic light. The blast blew off Novosyolov's head.

The day of his murder, Novosyolov had been expected to testify in court about voting fraud to change the gubernatorial elections date.

A month later, accused contract murderer Yury Shutov - another member of the city council and another political ally of Yakovlev's - was freed on bail after 10 months in custody.

Shutov's freedom lasted scarce minutes. He was immediately rearrested. Now back in jail, he stands accused of running a murder-for-hire ring.