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.