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'Attack' on Yeltsin Aide's Car Just a DUI Case : Russia: A drunken barber is blamed for crash involving lawyer handling Communist Party trial. Fears of political motive had reflected jittery nerves.

July 21, 1992|CAREY GOLDBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — What appeared at first to be an assassination attempt tied to the politically explosive trial of the Communist Party turned out Monday to have been merely the misadventure of a drunken Russian barber.

Alexei Smirnov, the 27-year-old director of a Moscow hair salon, confessed to police that he was the culprit whose small blue sedan had barreled into the car carrying Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's chief lawyer, the Interfax news agency reported.

With the confession, the car crash settled back into the realm of the mundane, but the furor it had caused for several days reflected widespread fears, particularly among skittish members of Yeltsin's government, that Russian Communists intent on restoring their former regime may resort to old-style dirty tricks.

Soon after the crash on Thursday, which injured lawyer Sergei M. Shakhrai and two others in his car, Yeltsin's press service issued a statement reporting "an attack" on Shakhrai and adding: "We're talking about a serious and premeditated crime."

The daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda headlined its account of the crash, "An Accident--or Something Worse?"

Attention turned immediately to the Communists, who are Shakhrai's legal opponents in the special trial now under way in Russia's Constitutional Court over the legality of the Communist Party and whether Yeltsin had the right to ban it. Yeltsin himself has said the trial is so crucial that the political fate of the nation could depend on it.

Suddenly, the former Communist bigwigs had to face suspicious looks and challenging questions from Russian reporters about their possible involvement in the accident. The KGB had been suspected several times in the past.

Communist leaders dismissed the innuendo outright. They pointed out, among other things, that if they had wanted to take out Shakhrai's specially reinforced, roomy Volga sedan, they would not have sent a puny Zhiguli--about the size of an American compact car--to do it.

Doubts remained, however, even after Shakhrai himself, pale and with his right arm in a sling, told Russian Television, "This was an accident.

"If there was any intent on the driver's part," he added, "maybe it was a kind of road hooliganism. I don't see any other political basis to it."

As it turned out, Shakhrai was right. According to accounts issued by the Russian Interior Ministry, police and Russian agencies, the barber Smirnov and two equally drunken friends were zooming along the highway at about 80 miles an hour, trying to pass Shakhrai's Volga, when they hit it with their bumper.

The Volga went hurtling into a tree on the side of the road and overturned. The driver's spine was reported broken, and the guard who had been sitting in front was injured as well. Shakhrai escaped with only a hurt shoulder.

Smirnov, meanwhile, stashed his car with its telltale damage in a nearby yard, and, still drinking with his friends, decided to try to make it look as if his car had been stolen before the accident, according to reports Monday.

Police were not fooled, however. They found Smirnov on Sunday and, as the Interfax news agency so blandly put it, "He was persuaded to confess."

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