Russian observers continue to discuss the July 9 murder of American journalist Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. Gazeta.ru wrote that the list of Russia’s 100 leading tycoons along with estimates of their wealth published in the magazine in May broke “taboos.” “Apart from Mr. Klebnikov, no one in Russia was involved in such investigations,” the website asserted. It also stated that Klebnikov “proved his readiness to violate the taboo in other spheres as well,” citing an interview he gave to Izvestiya just seven hours before his murder. In that interview, Klebnikov said, among other things, that Roman Abramovich and Sibneft have not suffered the same misfortunes as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Yukos because Abramovich is a “personal friend” of President Vladimir Putin. Gazeta.ru’s commentary also cited “reports” that Klebnikov had recently “expressed a special interest” in a looming confrontation between another Yeltsin-era oligarchic entity, Alfa Group, and “the Kremlin-St. Petersburg group” of KGB veterans who rose to prominence following Putin’s arrival in power in 2000. The website claimed that for a Russian media outlet even “to mention the existence of that St. Petersburg group could prove fatal” (Gazeta.ru, Izvestiya, July 12).
It should be noted that Novaya gazeta and regular contributors such as Yulia Latyina have routinely referred to and discussed the St. Petersburg group — including several of its putative leaders by name — often in irreverent and even harsh terms, while also regularly criticizing the Kremlin and the Federal Security Service along with various oligarchs and government officials. And, as several commentators have noted, many observers believe the list of the top 100 oligarchs contained, as Aleksei Khomyakov wrote in Russkii zhurnal, “no incredible revelations.” Khomyakov also noted that “journalists very often write far more unpleasant and less reliable things, yet they are not killed for it” (Russ.ru, July 12).
Whatever the case, some media have broached the idea that Klebnikov’s murder could spark a renewed campaign by the authorities against big business. Vedomosti asked experts and business people: “Are you worried that the investigation of Klebnikov’s murder will give rise to an ‘Oligarch’s Plot’?” Igor Yurgens, vice-president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs answered: “The law-enforcement organs don’t need pretexts like the American Paul Klebnikov. They have enough information to go to anybody with their questions.” Olga Kryshtanovskaya of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who is the country’s leading expert on its elites, predicted the Kremlin might use the murder to launch a campaign not against the oligarchs, but organized crime, saying this would be an “effective maneuver” by which “Putin can repair his reputation in the West.” Using Klebnikov’s murder against the oligarchs would cause a backlash in the West, Kryshtanovskaya said — adding, like Yurgens, that the authorities do not need a pretext to move against the oligarchs (Vedomosti, July 13).
Still, Konstantin Simonov, general director of the Center for Political Trends, said it was “very curious” that Klebnikov’s murder happened at a time when a “re-disdtribution of raw materials property” is underway, the first stage in that process being the moves against oil giant Yukos. “It is being said that unhappy oligarchs possibly contributed to what happened,” Simonov said of Klebnikov’s murder in an interview with Agenstvo Politicheskikh Novostei. “I don’t think that the oligarchs put out a contract on Klebnikov. But his murder can become the pretext for an attack on the oligarchs — that they not only don’t pay their taxes, but also kill journalistsÉ That interpretation of Klebnikov’s murder shows that in the summer or autumn we can expect very interesting events” (APN.ru, July 12).