St. Pete Lawmaker Killed by Car Bomb

ST. PETERSBURG -- Viktor Novosyolov, one of St. Petersburg's most influential politicians, was murdered Wednesday morning when two men walked up to his car as it was stopped at a traffic light, placed a bomb on the roof and detonated it.

The explosion blew off Novosyolov's head and he died instantly. The driver of the car was also injured; he lost a hand.

But Novosyolov's bodyguard escaped unharmed, and after the blast he got out of the car and shot after the two fleeing suspects, killing one person - although it is not clear whether it was one of the suspects or a bystander.

A second man was detained by the traffic police.

Local police chief Viktor Vlasov said the killers may have manipulated the traffic light on Moskovsky Prospect in southern St. Petersburg, which stopped Novosylov's car at about 8:45 a.m. as he was being driven to work.

If so, they chose an interesting traffic light: just outside the Roza Vetrov cafe. In the 1970s, Novosyolov worked as a bartender at the Roza Vetrov, while Vladimir Kumarin - the head of the Tambovskaya group, which is widely described as the city's most feared crime ring - had just arrived at Roza Vetrov from Tambov and took up work as the doorman.

Investigators on Wednesday declined to name either the man killed or the detained suspect. Prosecutors reached Wednesday would only say that political, commercial and domestic motives for the killing are being investigated.

But according to investigative journalist Andrei Konstantinov, who has written a book about the Tambov group and other organized crime rings in St. Petersburg, Novosyolov was going to testify later that same day as a witness in a court case being brought against Governor Vladimir Yakovlev.

The suit alleges that Yakovlev's allies in the St. Petersburg city council - Novosyolov among them - falsified a vote last week in order to move the city's gubernatorial elections forward to December. The elections were originally scheduled for April and the early date benefits Yakovlev by denying potential opponents time to prepare for the poll.

Finally winning that vote took Yakovlev's legislative allies nine tries. It was a political tug-of-war marred by, among other things, one city council member (who is also president of a bodybuilding association) kicking another (who is skinny) in the genitals. Within hours of the vote passing Yakovlev had signed it into law - but State Duma deputies, St. Petersburg council members and even the city Audit Chamber all cried foul. City council members sued.

"It is an unfortunate coincidence that today Novosyolov had to testify as a witness, and a very important witness," Konstantinov said in a telephone interview Wednesday. That Novosyolov intended such testimony could not be independently confirmed.

Novosyolov had supported Yakovlev's drive to move the elections up. But his relations with Yakovlev have also been strained over the past year. Rumors have been swirling for months that Novosyolov and Kumarin were planning Yakovlev's political demise by scheming to support their own candidate - Deputy St. Petersburg Governor Valery Malyshev - in gubernatorial elections.

According to lawmaker Sergei Andreyev, Novosyolov wanted something in return for his support - the city council speakership. Andreyev said Yakovlev, fearing a powerful rival in power, had been denying Novosyolov that plum.

"Novosyolov is a person who knew a lot," said Andreyev. "He was a figure who could be sacrificed on the eve of ... elections."

Within hours of Novosyolov's death on Wednesday, his office at the St. Petersburg city council was the scene of frenetic activity.

According to Andreyev and other eyewitnesses, lawmaker Sergei Shevchenko, a close ally of both Novosyolov's and Kumarin's, tried to have a safe removed from Novosyolov's office. He was stopped by other lawmakers who then saw to it that the office was sealed.

Andreyev and other lawmakers said that Novosyolov may have kept compromising materials about Yakovlev in the safe.

A mainstay in St. Petersburg politics for over a decade, Novosyolov was regularly ranked by local media as one of the city's most powerful figures. He survived an assassination attempt in 1993 and had since used a wheelchair. A vocal advocate for the rights of the disabled and elderly, the local press has referred to him as "Petersburg's Roosevelt," in reference to another wheelchair-using politician, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.

He was also said to have close ties to the Tambov. In a recent interview with the weekly newspaper Kariera, Novosyolov admitted as much, saying he maintained "good relations" with the Tambov group's leader, Kumarin. In a recent interview with Kommersant, Kumarin himself talked about the Tambov - not exactly saying it was a crime group, but not exactly saying it wasn't either, and adding that they do not wear track suits and are respectable businesspeople. "We don't conduct any meetings and we don't have any membership payments," he told Kommersant.

According to journalist Konstantinov, the Tambov was born at the Roza Vetrov, initially as a small-time loan sharking and extortion operation. It later grew to dimensions that captured the public imagination and the headlines of local newspapers - so much so that when, in 1996, then-St. Petersburg police chief Anatoly Ponidelko said that the Tambovskaya mafia had infiltrated Yakovlev's City Hall, everyone knew what he was talking about.

Today Kumarin is vice president of the Petersburg Fuel Company, the city's largest petroleum distributor. Over the past year, a series of fuel and oil executives have been assassinated in St. Petersburg. On Wednesday, some lawmakers suggested that Novosyolov was the latest victim in what the local media has dubbed the "oil wars."

In August Pavel Kapysh - the head of a firm competing with Kumarin's on the local fuel market - was killed in rush-hour traffic on picturesque Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya by unknown assailants, who fired upon his Mercedes with a grenade launcher. Last October, Dmitry Filipov, the former head of the Petersburg Fuel Company, was also assassinated.

In remarks carried by Itar-Tass Yakovlev called Novosyolov's murder "purely political" and "highly cynical," without elaborating.

The governor was out of the country at the time of the murder - as he has been when most high profile assassinations have been committed here. He was in Israel; before leaving, he said he would be visiting "holy sites" there.

"Why is it that whenever there is a major assassination Governor Yakovlev is curiously out of the city?" said former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, in an interview broadcast Wednesday on ORT television.

Yakovlev was abroad on vacation in August 1997 - reportedly in Turkey - when Vice Governor Mikhail Manevich was killed on Nevsky Prospect, shot dead by a rooftop assassin. Yakovlev was in Austria in November 1998 when federal lawmaker Galina Starovoitova was gunned down on her stairwell. And he was in southern Russia in August when Kapysh was killed.

Last year, the newspaper Noviye Izvestiya published what it said were transcripts of phone conversations linking Yakovlev to reputed mobsters, including a crime lord named Kostya Mogila, or Kostya the Grave, who was running the cemetery business. The transcripts came some months after the top St. Petersburg city official for managing the cemeteries was killed in a contract hit. And in February, a local city council member and ally of Yakovlev's, Yury Shutov, was arrested and charged with a series of contract murders.