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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Crime, No Punishment




Two weeks ago, a woman was gunned down in the entrance to her St. Petersburg apartment building. The hail of bullets had all the earmarks of a political assassination.


But despite what Russian officials say is a massive manhunt, it is unlikely that those responsible for the slaying of lawmaker Galina Starovoitova - and the wounding of her press aide in the same attack - will be caught soon, given who is in charge of the case.


The Federal Security Service, the Soviet KGB's main successor agency, has a dismal record of finding the perpetrators behind what has become an epidemic of politically motivated murders in Russia. Since 1994, five other parliamentarians have been killed, along with investigative journalist Dmitry Kholodov, prominent television commentator Vladislav Listyev and St. Petersburg Vice Mayor Mikhail Manevich. Each crime remains unsolved, suggesting that the Federal Security Service - the country's main security organ, which is know by its Russian acronym as the FSB - is allowing a climate of lawlessness in which violence is becoming a central instrument in the country's political debate.


The Nov. 20 death of democratic reformer Starovoitova, 52, is another reminder of how little progress Russia has made toward achieving a civil society since the Soviet days, when the KGB spent much of its time persecuting people like her. Her fierce independence helps explain why her funeral drew thousands of people, many openly despairing at Russia's inability to put an end to rampant criminality.


To be sure, security police today do not round up dissidents for speaking out against the government, as they did in the past. But in allowing violent crime and corruption to become a way of life, they have taken Russia far off the democratic path upon which it embarked in 1991. It is difficult to speak of democracy or civil rights when politicians and their aides, journalists and businessmen face possible execution by hired thugs.


The FSB has sufficient forensic technology and experienced investigators. But it is run by employees of the former KGB, which trampled individual rights, colluded with Communist Party officials in corruption and contracted criminals to kill troublesome dissidents.


It is not surprising that since 1991, Russia's security agencies have been beset with corruption scandals and charges of mafia connections. Former FSB director Nikolai Kovalyov, fired last July, was even implicated in an alleged FSB attempt to murder businessman and leading financial oligarch Boris Berezovsky.


The new FSB chief, Vladimir Putin, vowed to oust corrupt officers and stem violent crime. In St. Petersburg last week, Putin and his investigators were talking tough, and the investigation of Starovoitova's killing has resulted in more than 300 arrests.


But the FSB may just be blustering. Although some observers suspect that Starovoitova's murder is connected with her support for anti-corruption candidates in St. Petersburg's municipal elections, held Sunday, others say the FSB should look for the killers in its own backyard. The expertise with which her murder was carried out strongly suggests connections with the security services. The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that the killers used external surveillance and wiretapping to determine Starovoitova's movements, and their sophisticated weapons were of the type that only security professionals use.


Most FSB officials spent their formative years in the KGB. Putin, for example, began working for the it in the 1970s. Contrary to official claims that he was a KGB foreign intelligence officer, reliable sources in Moscow say Putin worked on the domestic side, possibly even for the KGB's notorious Fifth Chief Directorate, which targeted dissidents.


Given their past, it is hard to imagine that FSB officials are anxious to find the killers. More likely is that they will use the murder as an excuse to violate individual rights by expanding the FSB's already substantial powers of covert surveillance, search and seizure, and other investigative methods.


And the FSB and other security agencies are answerable only to the Russian president. Although he has fired several security chiefs, Boris Yeltsin has never attempted to curb corruption or institute meaningful changes in the operations of these agencies.


With all its attention focused on the Russian economic crisis, the West may be underestimating how serious a threat the deterioration of law and order is to Russia's future. It is hardly useful, for example, for the United States to offer the Russians expert advice on fighting organized crime when Russia's crime fighting agencies are corrupt and Yeltsin does nothing about it.


We cannot assume that democracy has taken root in Russia simply because there is a parliament and freedom of the press. What good are elections if elected representatives are assassinated with impunity? And how effective is a free press if journalists who take on such issues as corruption are mowed down by machine guns?


Amy Knight is a research associate at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. She contributed this comment to The Washington Post.