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Russian Politician Is Arrested in the Assassination of Lawmaker

Officials link a Liberal Russia leader and aide to the slaying of the party's co-chairman. Suspect calls his detention politically motivated.

June 27, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A leader of the bitterly divided Liberal Russia party has been detained as a suspect in the April slaying of party co-chairman Sergei Yushenkov, authorities said Thursday.

Mikhail Kodanyov, head of a party group that supports self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, was arrested Wednesday night along with Alexander Vinnik, an aide, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said. Two alleged hit men were arrested earlier, he added.

Yushenkov, a onetime Berezovsky ally, had at the time of his death been co-leader of an anti-Berezovsky faction.

The developments sharpen a long-running conflict between Berezovsky and the Kremlin, with Berezovsky calling himself the real target of Kodanyov's detention. He also reiterated a charge that people associated with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin were probably responsible for Yushenkov's killing.

"The main thing is that I have got the money to finance an opposition political movement," Berezovsky said in a telephone interview from London. "This drives the Kremlin dwellers up the wall, because no one else in Russia has enough independent money to finance a big political party that would not depend on the Kremlin."

Russian prosecutors are seeking Berezovsky's extradition from Britain to face corruption charges, which Berezovsky says are politically motivated. He said Thursday that Kodanyov's arrest may be aimed at adding murder to the accusations against himself.

"Russian law enforcement bodies have tried to smear my name and make me look involved in many suspicious situations over the past period of time," he said. "So, I will not be surprised if an attempt is made to find a connection between Yushenkov's murder, Kodanyov's arrest and me.... His entire case should not be viewed as anything else but another attempt to get me. This is for sure."

Gryzlov said, "Searches at the suspects' homes and offices were conducted during the day. The searches have proved productive."

Authorities offered no further explanation of what evidence they might have against Kodanyov.

The Liberal Russia party was founded in 2001 with financial backing from Berezovsky, a onetime Kremlin power broker who now is one of Putin's most vociferous critics.

Last year, the main leadership of Liberal Russia broke with Berezovsky because of his political overtures to the Communists, which were aimed at building a broader opposition movement. Such an alliance was seen as ideologically unacceptable by many of Liberal Russia's top figures, including Yushenkov, a key pro-democracy figure from the early 1990s.

Kodanyov, 48, spoke with the newspaper Vremya Novostei on Wednesday, within hours of the announcement that two alleged gunmen had been arrested. In the interview, published Thursday, he said he expected to be framed.

"I am sure testimony that I was the one who ordered the assassination will be extorted from them," Kodanyov said. "This is very much to the advantage of our opponents in Liberal Russia and the authorities."

Kodanyov told the newspaper that Viktor Pokhmelkin, co-chairman of the anti-Berezovsky faction of the party, had gone to the police with an accusation that Kodanyov played a role in the killing.

In comments Thursday, Pokhmelkin denied any role in his rival's arrest, but endorsed the suspicions against Kodanyov.

"Kodanyov intended to take over the leadership of Liberal Russia so as to prove his worth to his old paymaster, an oligarch who is out of favor with the authorities," Pokhmelkin said, in a reference to Berezovsky. "Yushenkov, a generally recognized leader of the party, was certainly an impediment. So infighting for power explains, I believe, what has happened."

Another Liberal Russia co-chairman, Vladimir Golovlyov, was gunned down in August as he was walking his dog. That slaying has not been solved, but Berezovsky said Thursday he believes the two killings are related.

"In a game where the stakes are so high, in a game that was started in order to finish off a party in opposition to the Kremlin, no holds are barred," Berezovsky said.

Gryzlov said that although he was convinced all four detainees were involved in the killing, he did not consider Yushenkov's killing solved.

"We have some people who we suspect of organizing and perpetrating the crime," he told reporters. "They have started giving evidence and will continue to do so. Therefore, some other people may surface."


Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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