Commentators Continue To Discuss The Klebnikov Murder

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 54

While there are apparently no leads thus far in the Russian authorities’ investigation of the July 9 murder of Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian-language version of Forbes magazine, various Western media have made much of the comments by Valery Straletsky, head of Detektiv Press, which published Klebnikov’s two books in Russia. Straletsky, who until 1996 served as deputy to then-Presidential Security Service head Alexander Korzhakov, claimed that Klebnikov was planning to write a book about the unsolved 1995 murder of TV journalist Vladislav Listyev and “had begun to collect material” about it. Straletsky’s claim was apparently deemed significant because of Klebnikov’s assertion in his December 1996 Forbes article “Godfather of the Kremlin?” that Boris Berezovsky was involved in Listyev’s murder. Last year, Forbes retracted that assertion, in exchange for which the exiled oligarch dropped his lawsuit against the magazine.

However, Streletsky also said that Klebnikov had gathered “very little material” about the Listyev murder and that, in any event, it was unlikely Klebnikov’s ostensible plans to revisit the Listyev case had caused his murder (Associated Press, July 16). Streletsky has backtracked even further in the last few days. He told Gazeta that while Klebnikov was investigating the Listyev murder in 1996, he had “left that investigation in its initial phase.” Streletsky also said that, as far as he knew, Klebnikov had not written anything in recent years. “So this is some kind of mistake,” Streletsky told the newspaper (Gazeta, July 18).

Meanwhile, Moscow-based human rights lawyer Karen Nersisyan told Moskovskiye novosti that Klebnikov had said in early July that he planned to write a series of articles on the murders of Russian journalists (Moskovskiye novosti, July 16). Nersisyan is currently defending a suspect in last year’s killing of Alexei Sidorov, editor of Tolyattinskoe obozreniye, the muckraking newspaper in Russia’s auto-manufacturing capital, Togliatti.

Yet despite these potential clues concerning the motive for Klebnikov’s murder, some observers are skeptical that it was tied either to his future writing plans or his previous work on the oligarchs, including both his writings on Berezovsky and material published in the Russian Forbes such as the infamous list of Russia’s richest 100 tycoons. Moskovskiye novosti editor-in-chief Yevgeny Kiselyov noted in the weekly’s latest edition that Klebnikov’s colleagues said he had not been working on any serious investigations in recent months and added that even the most hard-core criminals “are not likely to kill because of a mere intention to write about something.” Kiselyov also ruled out the possibility that Klebnikov was killed in revenge for the 100-richest list, “if only because all of these names and approximate fortune sizes have long been known in limited circles.”

However, Kiselyov wrote, Klebnikov’s murder does benefit “those forces that have unleashed the ‘anti-oligarchic’ hysteria in the country, which are inciting class hatred, calling for a redistribution of property. Precisely from this side it is already heard [that] the looters of the people’s property . . . have killed an honest American guy [and] lover of the truth.” Kiselyov added, “Far be it from me to suspect, much less accuse, anyone in particular — the special services, extremist organizations . . . or, God forbid, some newly-minted Russian death squads. But for me it’s clear: the murder of an American journalist is among the most pessimistic scenarios for the country’s development” (Moskovskiye novosti, July 16).

In another Moskovskiye novosti article, Ilya Baranikas cited an unnamed American journalist based in Moscow who said he believed that “the authorities” had killed Klebnikov because he had been investigating “corrupt links between oligarchs and Russia’s top state officials.” Furthermore, “Klebnikov’s murder, this colleague believes, is propagandistically advantageous to the Kremlin: it can easily be depicted as the death of an exposer of the oligarchs at the hands of the oligarchs. The kulaks killing Pavlik Morozov . . . Plus still another advantage: the killing of an American who was ‘on the side of the people’, ‘against the oligarchs’, can to some degree weaken the anti-American mood [in the country-EDM], which is now desired by the Kremlin” (Moskovskiye novosti, July 16).

For his part, veteran journalist Sergei Parkhomenko put forward three possible theories for Klebnikov’s murder. One is that Klebnikov, who had been living in Moscow full-time for less than a year, had somehow angered a low-level criminal or someone mentally unbalanced. Parkhomenko’s second theory is that Klebnikov — who, according to Parkhomenko, “very actively and willingly used different kinds of questionable sources of information and special services,” including people from the Federal Security Service (FSB) and former Soviet KGB — may have been killed by individuals who feared Klebnikov might reveal “what they had sold him over the last 10 or 12 years . . . how much they sold it to him for [and] on what terms.” Parkhomenko’s third version is a “murder-provocation” aimed at sending the message that “we don’t need these American journalists and American magazines here” (Ekho Moskvy, July 16).

Kiselyov and Parkhomenko, it should be noted, are liberal critics of the Kremlin. On the other side of the spectrum, television commentator Mikhail Leontyev also suggested Klebnikov’s murder was political, but with an entirely different motive. “All of his economic investigations were child’s play,” Leontyev told Komsomolskaya pravda. “Any leak to the press from the FSB was of a higher grade and more factual than Paul’s articles. And for Russia itself, Klebnikov was not a threat. Others stung more painfully. But to kill him is to give our country a punch in the solar plexus on an international scale” (Komsomolskaya pravda, July 12).