Fire at St. Pete Yabloko Office Called Arson By Party Leaders

ST. PETERSBURG -- A fire broke out this week in the St. Petersburg headquarters of Yabloko, and local party leaders said the fire may have been started by their political enemies in order to thwart party leader Igor Artyemev's bid for governor.

Artyemev, a former deputy governor who had announced his intention to challenge Governor Vladimir Yakovlev in Dec. 19 gubernatorial elections, said Wednesday that the fire, which broke out at 8:15 a.m. Tuesday, was a "contemptuous provocation."

"There were no heating devices or short circuits," he said. "Therefore, it was caused by arson."

Artyemev said the fire was "an attempt to destroy the list of about 40,000 signatures gathered from supporters, which was in the office at the time." To register for the gubernatorial race, candidates must submit 70,000 signatures to the election commission by Friday.

As a result of the fire, about 100 copies of Yabloko's local party newspaper were burned as well as three square meters of office space, Artyemev said.

Venyamin Polevoi, a fire department investigator who was at the scene, said the allegations of arson "can neither be confirmed nor denied."

Tuesday evening, city-owned Channel 5 compared the incident to the 1933 fire in the Reichstag, the German parliament, which the Nazis blamed on communists. At the time, there was speculation that the Nazis set the fire themselves to increase their support.

Yabloko, which enjoys wide support in St. Petersburg, has strongly disputed the city parliament's decision to move up the gubernatorial election scheduled for April to Dec. 19, the same day as State Duma elections.

The decision, upheld Monday by a St. Petersburg court despite opponents' claims of falsification, is widely seen as benefiting Yakovlev's re-election campaign.