MOSCOW, Nov. 25 (JTA) – Jews in Russia and their supporters overseas are viewing the murder of liberal lawmaker Galina Starovoitova here as a setback for human rights and the rule of law in Russia. “Her death is an irreplaceable loss for Jews in Russia, as well as a heavy loss for all liberal-thinking Russians,” said Mikhail Vol, 62, a physicist who was among the more than 2,000 residents of Moscow who gathered in Pushkin Square, on a bitter cold Tuesday evening to pay their respects. The 52-year-old Starovoitova, a longtime supporter of Jewish causes and critic of anti-Semitism, who was gunned down last Friday night in her St. Petersburg apartment building, was buried there Tuesday in the cemetery where such famous Russians as the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky and the composer Peter Tchaikovsky are buried. Nearly all major politicians agreed that her death was a political assassination – although who exactly was behind the murder is still open to debate. Starovoitova had recently been one of the harshest critics of Communist lawmaker Gen. Albert Makashov, who recently made several public anti-Semitic statements. Starovoitova had also crossed paths with ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky by announcing in September that if Zhirinovsky ran for governor of the region that includes St. Petersburg, she would run against him. Starovoitova also planned to run for president in 2000. These facts led some to suggest that Russian ultranationalists were behind her death. But her outspokenness in support of human rights and minorities had earned her many enemies. Some believe her assassination was linked to elections for the St. Petersburg city legislature, which are slated for Dec. 6. Starovoitova had publicly allied with candidates who criticized the city’s governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, and tried to reduce his power by organizing an alternative slate of candidates to unite liberals in an ugly contest for control over the city’s legislature. The campaign, which the media has labeled the “dirtiest election campaign in the history of Russia,” also recently saw a wave of anti-Semitic propaganda attacks. In some districts, campaign posters of Jewish candidates were defaced with anti-Semitic slogans and symbols; in others, leaflets were distributed asking voters not to vote for Jewish candidates. Starovoitova, who was not Jewish, had long been known as a friend of the Jewish community. In 1988, she was one of the organizers of the Jewish Culture Association, the first legal Jewish organization established during the era of Mikhail Gorbachev. She worked “to make glasnost and perestroika mean something,” Mark Levin, executive director of the National Council on Soviet Jewry, said in Washington. Levin said he was honored to consider Starovoitova a friend. “There have always been courageous people throughout Russian history. She’ll always be remembered as one of the most courageous. Hopefully, there will always be those who emulate her path and work to achieve a society governed by the rule of law,” he said. The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, which monitors human rights in the former Soviet Union, said in a statement that it mourned the death of Starovoitova. An early supporter of President Boris Yeltsin, Starovoitova helped to create a new Jewish university, the State Maimonides Academy in Moscow, when she was Yeltsin’s aide on ethnic affairs in 1991 and 1992. She was also one of the few Russian lawmakers who participated in the second convention of the Russian Jewish Congress held last September. Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad – The Jewish Federation of Russia and a friend of Starovoitova for 20 years, said many achievements of the Jewish community in the 1980s and 1990s would have been impossible without her efforts. “She was probably the last of this type of democratic politicians who helped to bury Communism in the late 1980s,” said Konstantin Orlov, a medical student who also paid his respects to Starovoitova on Tuesday. “I hope her death will help healthy forces in Russia to unite in her name against growing nationalist and Communist threats and intolerance.”
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