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Profile : Yeltsin Aide Joins the 'Boys' Club' : Starovoitova, the lone female voice among Russia's political power brokers, commands respect with her candor and quick wit.

June 23, 1992|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — As Galina V. Starovoitova, one of President Boris N. Yeltsin's top advisers, approached the rostrum to address the 90% male Russian Parliament, hecklers yelled out "Generalissimo!" and raised a ruckus in the hall to try to prevent her from speaking.

The emotion-charged battle between Russia and Ukraine for the rich Crimean Peninsula was the topic this day, and conservative deputies did not want to listen to Starovoitova.

But listen they did, because as Yeltsin's straight-talking adviser on ethnic questions--and a host of other subjects--she expresses views that often become the president's policies.

The only woman to ascend to the top realm of Russia's male-dominated politics, Starovoitova, 46, often beats her male colleagues at their game--and is not too shy to say so. She has made many enemies on her way up. But these days even her foes respect her.

"Yeltsin chose me as an adviser because he knew I have a great support in the country," Starovoitova said. "Last month, my rating was No. 5--Yeltsin was first and I was fifth--and I was the first woman.

"Maybe it's not modest to mention this," she added without a hint of a blush. "But everyone knows I'm one of the most popular politicians in the country."

Starovoitova (pronounced Star-uh-VOY-tuh-vuh) was an unknown ethnographer 1988, when she wrote a compassionate letter denouncing pogroms against Armenians in Azerbaijan. That made her so popular among Armenians that she was elected the next year to represent the then-Soviet republic in the Soviet Parliament--even though she is an ethnic Russian from St. Petersburg. Her fame quickly spread nationwide.

She says that Andrei D. Sakharov, the late Nobel Prize laureate and dissident physicist who was also a member of that Congress of People's Deputies, became "my teacher in politics." And, even though he died before Starovoitova won a seat in the Russian Parliament and became a powerful member of Yeltsin's team, Sakharov still influences her thinking.

"In difficult moments, I try to ask myself this question: 'How would Academician Sakharov act at this time? What decision would he make? What would he say?' " Starovoitova said.

"Several of Sakharov's ideas are timely right now," she said. "For instance, he supported a flexible membership in the union--this is pertinent now for the Commonwealth of Independent States and for the Russian Federation."

Starovoitova has developed into a professional, Western-style politician who loves the strategies and tactics of the game. "It is even more interesting than playing chess," she said. "I can influence the course of events and not simply move figures on the board."

Her willingness to admit that she likes to wield power is rare in this country, where to call a politician "ambitious" is still an insult.

Many of the fledgling democrats who were her allies in the now-defunct Soviet Parliament have resumed their studies, returned to their workplaces or found positions abroad. But not she.

"When you're a scholar, you observe events and write about them--somebody may even read the stuff--but you cannot influence events," Starovoitova said. "When you have access to decision-making, you can influence the decisions and shape history. Once you experience this, it is very difficult to give it up voluntarily. It's like a drug."

To date, she said, Yeltsin has followed her advice on staff decisions--the choice, for example, of Russian ambassador to the United States Vladimir Lukin, on relations with other former Soviet republics, on the formation of a Russian army and on strategies for solving violent ethnic conflicts within the multinational Russian republic.

"I have decided for myself that, as long as he accepts more than 50% of my advice, I will remain in this office, as there are a lot of people who would like to influence him. If the percentage is lower, I would be irrational to stay here. But, so far, he has taken more than 70% of my advice," she said.

Not everyone in Yeltsin's camp appreciates having to share presidential counsel with this quick-witted, energetic and at times headstrong woman.

"In general, Russian men are jealous," Starovoitova theorized. "They are very jealous when a woman wins a role on their team and plays such a strong role. There are many men battling to influence the president, and they are especially angered when a woman beats them out."

Starovoitova's frankness is also not always appreciated. While most members of Yeltsin's team deny that the Russian army has broken its neutrality in the strife-filled southwestern republic of Moldova, Starovoitova tells journalists that Russian soldiers are fighting Moldovans. And although most Russian officials avoid offending new allies like Turkey, Starovoitova accuses Ankara of backing Azerbaijan in the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

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