The case of Oleg Shcherbinsky as part

of modern Russian history


MOSCOW, (RIA Novosti political commentator Boris Kaimakov)

Oleg Shcherbinsky, who was acquitted last week in the manslaughter case of
one of Russia's regional governors, is almost as popular today as Russian
President Vladimir Putin.

All of Russia watched the trial for the past six months, holding
demonstrations in the man's defense, whereas the State Duma, the lower house
of parliament, discussed the court's initial verdict of manslaughter.

That is what had happened to Oleg Shcherbinsky, a Siberian railway worker.
In August 2005, he was driving with his children and mother-in-law from his
countryside house in his second-hand Toyota. Unfortunately for him, the car
carrying Altai Region Governor Mikhail Yevdokimov, nicknamed "the
Schwarzenegger of Siberia", was moving at the break-neck speed of more than
200 km/h (124 mph) in the same direction. Governors do not drive themselves;
it was a paid driver behind the wheel of Yevdokimov's official Mercedes.

Trying to overtake the Toyota on the left, the Mercedes raced up from
behind, sideswiped Shcherbinsky and flew off the road and into a tree nearly
20m ahead. Oleg Shcherbinsky and his family ran to Yevdokimov's car to find
a terrible sight: the dead bodies of the governor and his driver. The
governor's wife sustained heavy injuries and was taken to the hospital.

The death of the Altai Region governor came as a heavy blow to the
authorities and common people alike. Mikhail Yevdokimov, a former popular
actor who became governor, was sincerely loved. His stage image was a common
man who loved going to the steam bath with friends and having a glass or two
of vodka afterwards, but also a man who stood up for truth and personal
dignity. And this is exactly what Yevdokimov intended to do as governor of
his native Altai Region. His victory came as a surprise: two-thirds of
voters supported not a professional politician, but the former actor.

The region mourned Yevdokimov and Putin publicly expressed his condolences.
The nationwide grief apparently influenced the investigators, who had
intended to prosecute Shcherbinsky. On the other hand, was it grief alone
that predetermined the man's fate?

Many independent experts said that the investigation was not objective and
that Shcherbinsky was to blame only for driving the car, which the
governor's Mercedes hit. Prominent journalist Yury Geiko, who writes about
cars, driving, common men and the authorities, carried out his own
investigation, which showed that Shcherbinsky could not see the speeding
Mercedes with the blue flashing light on its roof on the hilly road. These
blue lights are the sign of privilege, that attribute of authority in
Russia, and a way to force other drivers aside.

So, is official status a protection from responsibility for violating
traffic rules?

Demonstrations in defense of Oleg Shcherbinsky were held all over Russia and
some parliamentarians raised the issue of canceling the use of all symbols
of power on Russian roads. One of the deputies said even the British Queen
did not have such privileges over her subjects and pointed out that traffic
is not stopped in France to allow the car chauffeuring the French president
to pass.

More moderate deputies suggested adopting a law on five flashing lights to
be used by the president, the prime minister, the speakers of the two houses
of parliament and the chairman of the Constitutional Court.

It is difficult to say how the government would react to these
"infringements" on the status of power, but society has made its
dissatisfaction known.

United Russia, the leading and ruling party in the country, was quick to
sense it. This is the only explanation for its decision to raise the issue
of blue lights and speak up for Oleg Shcherbinsky. The party has very close
ties with the Kremlin and the case of Shcherbinsky long ago grew from a
traffic into a political accident.

Never before in the history of the Soviet Union and Russia was a traffic
accident discussed so openly and objectively. In the mid-1950s, the country
was shocked by the death in a car accident of Belarussian leader Pyotr
Masherov, who was expected to become the top ruler with time. Officially, a
truck hit Masherov's car; its driver was sentenced to a long prison term.
But the course of the investigation and the fact that the trial was held
behind closed doors provoked the rumor that the accident was premeditated
and the driver was not to blame.

Similar rumors and versions floated around during the Shcherbinsky case too,
when some opposition sites made public the results of their investigations,
concluding that it was an assassination.

There are mixed reasons for the authorities' close attention to the case of
Shcherbinsky, notably public discontent over the first court ruling, which
sentenced the man to four years, and open disregard for the procedure and
rules of investigation. Prominent Lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, member of the
Public Chamber under the Russian president, openly spoke about the low
standards used during the investigation. And one more reason was the
interest of top state officials, who should have been the recipients of the
guilty verdict passed on Shcherbinsky in the eyes of the people.

This called for revising the verdict. A second trial was held, surprisingly
for Russia, very quickly. The court quashed the "guilty" verdict, putting
the blame on the Mercedes' driver.

Shcherbinsky's acquittal and the fact that he was set free has become a
turning point in Russia because society saw that it can prove the court
wrong and ordinary people can defeat the authorities in a battle for their
rights. This is one of the most important precedents in recent Russian
history. -0-