Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 15

Contract murders on the rise in Russia

by Victor Yasmann

Fame and fortune are mixed blessings in Russia today. With wealthand notoriety comes the risk of violent death.

The rising tide of contract murder this year engulfed the "newRussians," the supporters and beneficiaries of market reforms.

Last week Ivan Kivelidi, a banker, businessman, and founderof the respected economic weekly Vek, was murdered in Moscow,along with his secretary. They are but the latest victims ofa murderous epidemic. According to General Aleksandr Gurov, authorof the book Red Mafia, in the course of one year mobsterskilled some 600 entrepreneurs and bombed or raided over 700 companyoffices — and that in Moscow alone, not counting the Russianprovinces or the destruction wreaked by Russian criminal organizationsin Vienna, Berlin, Tel Aviv, or New York.

Victims of hired killers include bankers and businessmen, ofcourse, but also journalists, and politicians. The list includesat least a dozen deputies of regional legislative bodies and threedeputies of the Russian parliament, one of whom, Sergei Skorochkin,had himself been investigated for allegedly gunning down twopeople with a machine gun in 1993.

The motives of those responsible for the wave of violence areas murky as their identities. One theory holds that violenceis part of the process of accumulation of capital and redistributionof wealth that characterize contemporary Russia. The violencewill end when the "new Russians" have acquired enoughto care more about stability and order than accumulation. A secondschool, which includes some Moscow democrats, supposes the murdersand bombings are the work of Felix, a mysterious group of formerKGB officers who seek revenge against capitalist lackeys of theWest. Many businessmen who oppose Yeltsin’s government take athird line, attributing the violence to state security agenciesand to members of the old nomenklatura who are doing the biddingof a government that wants to intimidate them.

But whatever their theory of the case, all observers are agreedthat the present regime is unable or unwilling even to investigatethese killings, let alone prevent them. Of course little or nothingcan be expected from the innumerable security services and law-enforcementagencies: they are part of the political struggle and have dozensof excuses for their ineptitude. But Russian Justice, in particularthe office of the prosecutor general, is another matter.

The Agency of Selective Investigations

Until recently the office of the prosecutor general, almost uniquelyamong law-enforcement institutions, had avoided devastating reorganizationsand had kept its professional staff intact. In addition, it wasthe law-enforcement agency in the Soviet justice system leasttainted by the KGB. In fact the Party, at the direction of thePolitburo, issued secret instructions prohibiting the KGB frommonitoring or overseeing their activities. The Politburo wantedto have one skilled investigative agency that would do its biddingwithout KGB interference, and the prosecutor’s office was chosento fill that role. In the Gorbachev era, in the early days ofperestroika, only the prosecutor and the KGB were entrusted withinvestigations of corruption among government and party officials.

Yeltsin sought to control the prosecutor’s office by puttinghis protégé Valentin Stepankov in charge, and Stepankovwas eager to please. He immediately understood the new rulesof the game, curbed any prosecutorial zeal he might have had,and subordinated his agency to his political bosses. Stepankov’sstop-and-go investigation of the conspirators who plotted thefailed coup of August, 1991, made his reputation. In the courseof the investigation, he wrote a book featuring selected testimonyby the accused, which he published in Russia and abroad beforethe trial began.

Around the same time, the first wave of contract killings occurredwith no arrests and little investigation. The priest AleksandrMen was murdered in 1990, and in the months that followed theroll of victims grew: Nikolai Likhachev, president of Rosselkhozbank;Boris Yakubovich, director of the Sankt-Petersburg Inkombank;Iliya Medkov, the chairman of Pragmabank; Roman Grigoriev, theCEO of Kuzbassprombank; and other prominent businessmen.

The professional staff of the prosecutor general was preparedto pursue these cases, but the authorities were not. Indeed theauthorities interfered constantly, taking cases away from investigatorswho had uncovered promising leads, or dividing a single case amongseveral offices, and agencies, including the Ministry of InternalAffairs (MVD) and state-security investigators.

But when Stepankov was dismissed in November, 1993, this apparentmismanagement had nothing to do with it. Yeltsin had doubts aboutStepankov’s political loyalties: when the president confrontedthe parliament that fall, Stepankov had been slow to choose sides,and he paid for his hesitation.

Looking for loyalty, Yeltsin replaced Stepankov with AlekseiKazannik, a jurist who in 1990 had given up his seat in the Soviet-eraparliament to Boris Yeltsin (whom the Communists had not elected). But Kazannik, however helpful he may have been to Yeltsin in1990, proved to be too much a man of principle to serve his presidentfor long. When Kazannik refused to violate the Duma’s decisionto grant amnesty to the leaders of the failed anti-Yeltsin coup,he too was dismissed from his post. Aleksei Ilyushenko, Yeltsin’snext nominee for the job, was never confirmed by the Duma.

Meanwhile the wave of contract murders gathered strength. Inthe past twelve months hired killers executed:

A Wave of Blood

Leonid Likhodei, Chairman of the Union of Afghan Veterans;

Vladimir Turusov, deputy director of the Mayak plutonium-productionfacility;

Dmitri Kholodov and Yuri Korolev, journalists;

Vladimir Kuzmin. an oil-company director;

Vlad Listyev, the television anchorman; and

Valentin Martemyanov and Andrei Arzderdzis, deputies inthe Duma.

In most of these cases the killers were never identified. Wherethe killers were known, they were not caught.

In other cases, however, the prosecutor general’s investigatorsproved their ability to unravel even complex crimes. Two casesthat revealed the scope and nature of the contract killings werethe murder of Nikolai Perevozshchikov, deputy minister of theinterior of the Udmurt Republic, and the murder of Razil Musin,deputy speaker of the parliament in Bashkortostan. In both cases,the killers were identified as former or active officers of theMVD Special Purpose Detachment, OMON, hired by criminalized businessmento carry out the crime.

Further evidence of "Murder, Inc.," came from AleksandrSolonnik, a former MVD officer convicted of performing at leastseven murders for hire. Solonnik escaped from a maximum-securityprison in July, 1995, and promptly called Komsomolskaya Pravdain search of a little free publicity. His services were in suchdemand, he said, that his clients engineered his escape. He toldthe newspaper (which dutifully published the fact) that he wasopen for business at $50,000 a job.

The Death of Ivan Kivelidi

The recent murder of Ivan Kivelidi, however, suggests as nothingelse the power and pervasiveness of hired assassins in Russiatoday. Kivelidi after all was more than a successful banker. He was a leader of the financial community even in the Sovietera, having served on Mikhail Gorbachev’s Entrepreneurship Council.

And Kivelidi and his secretary died a particularly horrible andfrightening death, victims of radiation poisoning. A similarincidence of high-tech terror occurred two years ago, when anotherRussian businessman died after competitors implanted radioactivematerial in the upholstery of his office chair.

Kivelidi at the time of his death was the head of the RussianBusiness Roundtable, an association of independent, private businessmen. Difficult as it may be to believe, nine members of the boardof directors of that organization have been murdered in the pasttwo years.

Kivelidi had fought against this campaign of intimidation. WhenOleg Zverev, director of InterAtlantic Ocean Fishing Company,was gunned down last March, Kivelidi accused the government inhis death. Kivelidi saw Zverev’s murder as an effort by the stateand the old nomenklatura who have turned into state capitaliststo crush and politicize independent business.

Kivelidi saw the state and the nomenklatura in wittingor unwitting alliance with organized crime. The state, throughconfiscatory taxation, forces businessmen to choose between bankruptcyor felony. Those who avoid bankruptcy must join corrupt officialsor forge links to organized crime, to hide their assets or transferthem abroad. In Kivelidi’s view, the murder of Zverev (whosebusiness was largely conducted abroad and who had no use for domesticpolitics) was the way the state capitalism settled its accountswith private business. The honest businessman has no right tosurvive or to be let alone.

Besides his outspoken attacks on state capitalism and its linksto organized crime, Kivelidi also declared his opposition to adeal that Russia’s eight largest commercial banks were preparingto cut with Viktor Chernomyrdin. Under this arrangement, thebanks would provide credit to the destitute government, and inexchange the government would give the banks control over thestate enterprises scheduled for privatization in 1995. Kivelidisaw this as a crooked, sweetheart deal, because the banks arenot independent but are in fact themselves controlled by the state(through government-owned shares) and the state capitalists. The deal would enrich the old nomenklatura, now burrowedinto the commercial banks, and would link the state ever moreclosely to the "privatized" sector. Although up to60 percent of the Russian economy is said to be privatized, infact, 80 percent of those "privatized" assets are controlledby the banks in the hands of the old nomenklatura.

When Oleg Kantor, director of the Yugorsky Bank and another RoundTable member, was murdered last month, Kivelidi publicly declaredan intention to organize and finance resistance to criminal terroragainst private business. He announced an intention to organizeindependent businessmen politically, to challenge the party inpower and stop boosting Yeltsin as a "reformer" in theeyes of the West.

That was Kivelidi’s last public statement. On August 3, he andhis secretary Zara Ismailova were taken to the hospitalwith signs of acute poisoning. Two days later, both of them died. Moscow MVD investigators on the scene of the murder fell sickand needed urgent medical attention. On August 7, the MVD confirmedthe cause of death as radiation poisoning, reportedly from cadmium. The Chernomyrdin government has promised a tough response andhas ordered an investigation by — of course — the ProsecutorGeneral.

Consolidation of Power

The supporters and opponents of the present government agreeon one point: the regime in Russia is consolidating its power. Aleksandr Zinoviev, an anti-Communist who has turned againstthe West, wrote last month in Pravda: "The presentregime is now established. We wait for change in vain. I seeno force in the opposition or in society that can bring changeabout. There were great events and upheavals in our country inthe past decade, but these now lie behind us." From anothercorner of world, Michael Dobbs wrote in the Washington Poston July 30: "…a new Russian elite has emerged with a vestedinterest in political stability. The commanding heights of theeconomy are now controlled by former Communist Party and KGB officialswho used official connections to amass enormous power and wealth.The last thing these people need now, U.S. experts said, is anotherrevolution."

Stability is fine, but is it an end in itself? As we look atthe murder of Ivan Kivelidi and the hundreds of other contractkillings, we must ask ourselves: What kind of regime is takingshape in Russia?

Victor Yasmann is a Senior Analyst with the Jamestown Foundation