Sergei Yushenkov, a liberal lawmaker and outspoken critic of President Vladimir V. Putin, was shot to death Thursday outside his Moscow apartment in what allies immediately called a political assassination.
Yushenkov, 52, a co-chairman of the Liberal Russia party, was shot three times in the back by a single assailant using a pistol with a silencer, police said. His driver was not injured.
It was the 10th killing of a member of parliament since 1994 and the second in the last year of a member of the Liberal Russia party.
Sergei Ivanenko, deputy head of the Yabloko faction, a liberal coalition in the lower house of parliament, described Yushenkov as “a democrat of the ‘first wave.’ ”
“He is a man who laid the foundation of democracy in Russia,” Ivanenko said. “And the question now is whether we will be able to protect all that ... exists in Russia today.”
Yushenkov rose to prominence in 1991, when he helped foil a hard-line coup against Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Putin issued condolences to the family and a statement that he was “shocked at the tragic death” of a man who saw his duty as defense of “democratic freedoms and ideals.”
Parliamentary colleagues said that unlike some politicians, Yushenkov had no business dealings that could have prompted the killing.
Yelena Sokolova, Yushenkov’s press secretary, described it as “a contract killing that was politically motivated.”
Yushenkov “was a colorful politician, a key figure in the democratic movement in Russia,” said Boris Zolotukhin, a co-chairman of Liberal Russia. “He was a man of exceptional honesty, unselfishness and valor.”
The Liberal Russia party was founded last year with financial backing from self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a onetime Kremlin insider who is one of Putin’s most vociferous critics. Russian prosecutors are seeking Berezovsky’s extradition from Britain to face corruption charges. Berezovsky says the charges are politically motivated.
Yushenkov and the new party helped publicize a Berezovsky-financed film alleging involvement of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the domestic successor to the Soviet-era KGB, in a series of 1999 apartment bombings that have never been solved.
Those incidents, which were blamed on Chechen rebels, became one of the justifications for sending Russian troops back into the separatist republic of Chechnya. That launched the second war there in a decade -- and helped propel Putin into the presidency. Yushenkov opposed the war in Chechnya.
A few months after its founding, Liberal Russia broke with Berezovsky because of his political overtures to the Communists.
On Thursday, several politicians said the split with Berezovsky was one of Yushenkov’s few serious political conflicts.
“The only serious conflict that we had was one with Boris Berezovsky, but I can’t put forward such a theory,” Liberal Russia co-chairman Viktor Pokhmelkin told the Russian news agency Interfax.
Berezovsky, in a live interview Thursday on independent NTV television, implied that Putin might have ordered the killing.
“I have just read on RIA-Novosti that President Putin had been informed of the assassination of State Duma deputy Yushenkov,” Berezovsky said. “I have got only one question in this connection: Was the president informed of the assassination itself, or was he informed that the order to assassinate had been executed? I think the latter would be a more precise way to put it.”
Berezovsky acknowledged, however, that some might try to point a finger of suspicion at him. “What is expected to be said? That the traces of the murder lead abroad? Well, let it be abroad, then,” he told NTV. “It is pretty clear that, as usual, the abroad is again guilty of everything. I guess London is to blame for everything.
“Of course, I expect that there will be questions to me too. And, naturally, I personally would very much like to find out who that person who gave the order was. There is one crystal-clear goal in everything that has happened: to intimidate everybody, to intimidate the entire society. So that everybody would sit tight, and then come to vote all to a man, and vote for the ones they are told to vote for.”
Just a few hours before his death, Yushenkov gave a news conference at which he announced that Liberal Russia had completed the required registration process to participate in parliamentary elections scheduled for December.
Another Liberal Russia co-chairman, Vladimir Golovlyov, was gunned down in August as he was walking his dog.
“Liberal Russia had not even had a chance to become a political party in the full sense of the word yet, and it is already the second assassination,” Berezovsky said Thursday. “I do not want to point my finger at anyone now. I am sure, that just like the Golovlyov case, this one will remain up in the air.”
Berezovsky said there is no reasonable way to think that Yushenkov had business dealings that led to his killing.
“But they will come up with something -- they will find someone or something for that purpose,” he predicted.
Pokhmelkin declared that “the instigators of this assassination seem to want to scare all of us here.”
“They want to completely bring us to our knees,” he added. “But Sergei Yushenkov did not live to see us come down on our knees. So, the wicked assassins have failed to achieve this goal.”
Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow bureau contributed to this report.