Russia 090421 Basic Political Developments

Frenchman, Family Slain in Moscow Home

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Frenchman, Family Slain in Moscow Home
21 April 2009

By Alexandra Odynovaand Jessica Bachman / The Moscow Times

A French businessman and his family were discovered dead in their burned-out apartment Monday in central Moscow in an apparent case of murder and arson, investigators said.

Firefighters found the body of winemaker Thierry Spinelli and his wife in their third-story apartment on 3rd Tverskaya-Yamskaya Ulitsa, near Mayakovskaya metro station, after responding to a report of a fire at about 6:30 a.m. Monday, law enforcement officials said.

The couple's 2-year-old daughter, Elisa, was alive when the brigade arrived but died of smoke inhalation in the arms of a rescue worker, according to Investigative Committee officials cited by news agencies.

Forensics experts at the scene preliminarily determined that Spinelli's wife, Olga Spinelli, had been strangled, Anatoly Bagmet, head of the Moscow branch of the Investigative Committee, told RIA-Novosti.

Firefighters discovered at least two separate sources of the fire, indicating a possible arson attack, and the door of the apartment was open when they arrived, law enforcement and emergency services sources told The Moscow Times.

Spinelli had lived in Russia for more than a decade and was a co-founder of the Chateau le Grand Vostok winery in the Krasnodar region.

"He was a very successful businessman," Yelena Denisova, a member of the company's board of directors, told The Moscow Times in a telephone interview.

Denisova said she had seen Spinelli just four days before his death.

"The company has produced the best wine in Russia. I don't think he had any enemies. It could be only a robbery," she said.

Spinelli had not worked with the company since 2006 but remained in the wine business, Denisova said.

The couple purchased the apartment in 2006, RIA-Novosti reported, citing no sources. They had also hired a nanny to look after their daughter, though none of the neighbors saw the nanny Monday, the report said.

The couple's black Mitsubishi Pajero was missing after the fire Monday, RIA-Novosti cited a law enforcement source as saying.

The Investigative Committee has classified the crime as a multiple homicide, which is punishable by up to life in prison.

Officials could not be reached for comment Monday about a possible motive for the crime.

The five-story apartment building was cordoned off by police Monday afternoon when friends and relatives of the couple came to identify the bodies and talk to investigators, who had set up headquarters in the Mayak cafe on the ground floor of the building.

One woman burst into tears as she entered the cafe, while another woman entered the building accompanied by two Frenchmen.

"I can't go in there, I can't look at it," the woman wailed in Russian.

Crime scene investigators could be seen examining the burnt-out apartment through its 10 windows.

The apartment building is located just across the street from the headquarters of the Office for Presidential Affairs.

The French consul in Moscow visited the crime scene Monday, said Sylvain Guiaugue, spokesman for the French Embassy.

Spinelli's remains were badly burned in the fire, hindering his identification at the crime scene, Guiaugue said.

Spinelli was a French citizen, his wife was a Russian citizen and their daughter had dual citizenship, Guiaugue said.

"We have passed the information that a French citizen might have died in Moscow to the Foreign Office in Paris," he said.

Thierry Spinelli was well-known in the domestic wine sector and was in charge of finances at Chateau le Grand Vostok when the company was launched in 2003 as the upscale successor to Avrora, a former Soviet collective grape farm.

Chateau le Grand Vostok's 500 hectares of vineyards are located 50 kilometers inland from the Black Sea in the Krasnodar region's village of Sadovy.

"We just found out an hour ago," Gael Brullon, whose husband, Frank Duseigneur, is the company's general director in Krasnodar, said of the tragedy. "We are in complete shock."

Olga Spinelli was also in the wine business, working for the wine company Simple and as director of the Simple Wine and Art Club, according to an obituary posted Monday on the web site of the magazine Simple Wine News.

Members of the club have included popular television personality Yulia Bordovskikh and Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a one-time senior aide to former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, according to the company's web site.

April 20, 2009
Medvedev’s Mixed Messages
By Albina Kovalyova
Special to Russia Profile

Although Nothing New Was Said, Medvedev’s Giving an Interview to Novaya Gazeta Is Noteworthy in and of Itself

Last week, President Dmitry Medvedev chose the notoriously critical newspaper Novaya Gazeta to give his first exclusive interview. This was the most eye-catching in a series of moves that could be deemed “democratic” and are meant to give some hope to Russia’s beleaguered liberal-minded constituency. However, the extent to which the president’s support of democratic ideas will be matched by action and legislation remains to be seen.

During the interview, the president was asked about the elections in Sochi, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s trial, and the real transparency of the government member’s earnings. But in response to all of Novaya Gazeta Chief Editor Dmitry Muratov’s provocative questions, Medvedev provided vague, generalized answers. For example, when asked whether the current Khodorkovsky trial has a foreseeable result, Medvedev replied that “for members of the government and for the president, there cannot be any predictions regarding any court case, including the one that you have mentioned.” When asked about the recent disclosure of government salaries (another of his recent “democratic” initiatives), the president admitted that there was no way of checking whether what government officials and their families declared was true, but restated the importance of such public disclosure. He hopes that his could eventually turn into a “tradition” that could make the government feel more responsible. “It is the first step in the right direction,” the president said.

Although the president’s giving an interview to such a controversial newspaper as Novaya Gazeta (which is renowned for high-profile murders of its investigative journalists, such as Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and Anastasia Baburova and Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer with close links to the paper, earlier this year) is a step in the right direction in terms of the government’s confronting its liberal critics, what he said was far from groundbreaking.

Aleksei Mukhin of the Center for Political Information in Moscow said that Medvedev did not say anything new, and this was the whole point of giving the interview. By facing an opposition newspaper like Novaya Gazeta, Medvedev was looking to challenge the image of a weak president. But another goal of the interview was to “get a dialogue going with the civil society. Medvedev wants to divide his ratings from those of Putin, by getting the approval of the liberal members of society,” said Mukhin. In other words, the decision to speak with the paper had nothing to do with showing solidarity with its values, but was rather a means of spreading his appeal to the more skeptical parts of the Russian society.

Commenting on the interview, Muratov told Ren-TV that “It is correct that [the president] should choose Novaya Gazeta, because he is the president of the whole country and not just the nomenklatura or the oligarchs. I think this is why Novaya Gazeta was chosen, because the people in power want to speak to all of the members of its civil society.” Muratov also quoted Medvedev as saying “You know the reason that I chose Novaya Gazeta is because you have never kissed up to anybody.” These words were said off the record, but according to Muratov, the president assured the journalist that he could pass on the message.

This is not the first time that the president has openly endorsed the paper. At a meeting in the Kremlin following the murders of Baburova and Markelov, he said that he would be sorry to see the paper go. And again, though no transcript of the meeting appeared on the Kremlin’s Web site, he told Muratov to spread the word.

Nor is this the first time that the current Russian president has spoken about democratic values. But a lack of supporting actions is beginning to show through his excessive rhetoric. Talk of eradicating “legal nihilism” has been circulating for quite some time, yet corruption remains a serious problem in Russia. Although Medvedev often emphasizes his legal training and background, Mukhin said that this vagueness is due to the fact that “he is a lawyer, and legal terminology is opaque and does not provide concrete answers.”

It is possible that Medvedev is merely paying homage to Russia’s liberals. But it is also conceivable that he genuinely believes in an open and transparent democracy. Skeptics have rightly noted that he did not impose a serious independent moderation system for checking government salaries, but trusted officials to disclose certain documents. But this could be simply because he cannot yet do so. Perhaps it is a question of a lack of power and means.

Medvedev did not use the word “democracy” to describe the direction he wants his country to go in, but he stressed the importance of a civil society that could play an active role in Russia. This, together with his newly-proclaimed desire to build a Russian equivalent of London’s Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, suggests that he is interested in implementing some democratic values. 

But not everyone is that cynical about Medvedev’s motives. The Echo of Moscow radio station recently drew a parallel between Medvedev and Mikhail Gorbachev, who, it was also widely assumed, would simply continue the policies of his predecessors. No matter how evasive his answers, Medvedev’s very decision to give his first exclusive interview to Novaya Gazeta is a radical departure from the approach of his predecessor Vladimir Putin. Following the interview, Medvedev also met with human rights activists and liberals at the Institute of Contemporary Development INSOR.

One prominent Russian political analyst, Stanislav Bolkovsky, told Echo of Moscow that in his opinion, Medvedev was merely tying to improve his reputation abroad. “Medvedev had to sooner or later show himself to be a liberal politician who could cooperate with different parts of society,” he told the station. This, he said, was part of the larger “Project Medvedev,” which aims to patch up the Russian government’s reputation abroad. 

It remains unclear whether Medvedev's interview for Novaya Gazeta was a political move for the benefit of the government or a genuine gesture of support for the paper. Perhaps a combination of the two, it certainly got the attention of his critics, who will now be watching for actions that will back up his vague gesture “in the right direction.”

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