Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 50

Yesterday’s fatal air crash at Moscow’s Sheremetevo-1 airport, which claimed the lives of journalist-publisher Artem Borovik and oil magnate Zia Bazhaev, has inevitably led to speculation over whether it was simply an accident or the result of a terrorist act. Borovik, Bazhaev and seven other people died when the chartered Yak-40 jet bound for Kyiv which they had boarded crashed seconds after taking off, broke up on impact and burst into flames. Some sources said that, in view of the heavy snowfall in Moscow at the time of the take-off, the plane might not have been de-iced properly. A source in the security service at Sheremetevo-1 was quoted shortly after the crash as ruling out the possibility that the plane was sabotaged. An anonymous official from the Moscow Transport Prosecutor’s Office was quoted as saying that though a technical malfunction was the most likely cause, terrorism could not be ruled out. Federal Security Service spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich also said that the possibility of a terrorist act could not be ruled out. According to the Inter-Governmental Aviation Committee, which is in charge of investigating air disasters, it will take at least one to two weeks to determine the cause of the crash. Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said yesterday that a special commission would be formed to investigate the incident (Moscow Times, March 10; Russian agencies, RTR, March 9).

The rumors that the plane was sabotaged are, of course, directly related to the high-profile and controversial nature of two of the crash victims. Borovik, the son of the famous Soviet journalist and writer Genrikh Borovik, became well known during the perestroika period for his probes into taboo subjects, and in 1991 launched the newspaper Sovershenno Sekretno (Top Secret), which specialized in investigative–and some would say sensationalistic–journalism. Last year, the Sovershenno Sekretno publishing group, which the younger Borovik headed, launched the weekly magazine Versiya. It soon became one of the main vehicles for investigations into alleged Kremlin corruption, including the infamous Mabetex and Aeroflot cases, involving former President Boris Yeltsin’s family and the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, among others. The Sovershenno Sekretno group also produced a television program, which found a home on the private NTV television channel after being thrown off RTR state television. Through his father, Borovik was a life-long friend of former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and openly supported Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Last December, Borovik ran for a seat in the State Duma on the ticket of Fatherland-All Russia, headed by Primakov and Luzhkov. Borovik also sat on the board of TV-Tsentr, the television channel owned by the Moscow city government (Russian agencies, March 9).

Borovik’s father said yesterday that his son had received numerous threats connected to his professional activities, but that it was too early to draw any conclusions. The Moscow Union of Journalists said that Borovik had long been under threat from “those whom he exposed on the pages of his publications” (Moscow Times, March 10).

At the same time, Zia Bazhaev was no less a controversial figure. An ethnic Chechen, he headed the Sidanko oil firm from 1997 to 1998, after which he briefly headed the state-owned Rosneft oil company. He then founded the Alliance Group, a company which specializes in restructuring companies in the fuel and energy sector. FSB spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich claimed yesterday that Chechen rebel groups had tried to force Bazhaev into financing them, and that he had received threats after refusing. According to other unconfirmed reports, Bazhaev was being viewed as a possible candidate to become the president of “liberated” Chechnya. These reports did not identify who was putatively backing Bazhaev as Chechnya’s new leader. According to yet another theory, the air crash may have been connected to Bazhaev’s oil-restructuring business, given that the impending presidential election has sparked an intense behind-the-scenes battle over who will control Russia’s major industrial enterprises. In addition, Bazhaev had reportedly finalized a deal with Borovik to buy the Sovershenno Sekretno publishing house, and the two men were reportedly working on launching a Ukrainian edition of Versiya, which may explain why they were on the same Kiev-bound plane yesterday. Borovik himself had reportedly become involved in the oil business (Russian agencies, March 9-10; Moscow Times, March 10).