Moscow’s political and business elites spent much of yesterday (March 17) discussing who was behind an apparent attempt that morning to kill Anatoly Chubais, head of Unified Energy Systems (UES), Russia’s electricity monopoly, and the architect of Russia’s controversial post-Soviet privatization program. The three main theories are, first, that he was targeted for business reasons; second, that he was targeted for political reasons; and, third, that it was a fake assassination attempt, perhaps even staged by Chubais himself.
The Moscow Times, citing Moscow police, the Interfax news agency, Channel One, and NTV television, reported that the attack took place at about 9:30 am on March 17 as Chubais was traveling in his armor-plated BMW — accompanied by bodyguards in a Mitsubishi SUV — from his country house in Zhavoronki to Minskoye Shosse, a major highway that leads to Moscow from the west. A bomb with the force of 500 grams to 1.5 kilograms of TNT and containing screws and bolts exploded on the side of the road as the two cars passed by, leaving a crater five meters wide and 1.5 meters deep. Almost simultaneously, two assailants wearing light camouflage started firing “randomly” with Kalashnikov assault rifles, hitting Chubais’ BMW on the hood and windshield and piercing its right-front tire. The accompanying car stopped and the bodyguards jumped out and returned fire. The assailants fled in a green Saab that was waiting for them nearby. Chubais said no one was hurt in the attack (Moscow Times, March 18).
Later on March 17, police arrested a retired GRU military intelligence colonel on suspicion of organizing and participating in the attack on Chubais. Kommersant identified the suspect as Vladimir Kvachkov. Police searched Kvachkov’s apartment and that of one of his sons, Alexander, who they suspect may also have been involved. Lenta.ru reported on March 18 that the elder Kvachkov, who served in Afghanistan in 1989 and was reportedly an expert in explosives and sabotage operations, had denied involvement. Meanwhile, gazeta.ru quoted “a source close to the investigation” as saying that police were searching for another suspect — an inhabitant of Stavropol Krai (RBK, gazeta.ru, March 18).
Following the incident, Chubais said he had recently increased his security: “I have an idea of who could have taken out a contract on me. Frankly speaking, I recently had reason to suppose something like this could happen” (Financial Times, March 18). Last year, he claimed in an interview that there had been several plots to kill him. “I know of at least three contracts that were taken out on me,” he said. “I know all the details and the names of those who were to carry them out. The last contract was taken out 18 months ago. It was on purely political grounds — hatred that I sold out Russia” (Financial Times, November 13, 2004).
Some observers said they believed Chubais was targeted because of his planned restructuring of UES, under which the monopoly is being split up into generation, sales, and grid companies — a process likely to end cheap electricity for some large companies while greatly benefiting the owners of the newly-privatized electricity companies. “I think it has more to do with his strong position on conducting electricity reforms in a transparent manner — that clearly does not suit the regional barons above all,” said Igor Yurgens, a vice president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Russia’s big business lobbying group, who now manages government relations at Renaissance Capital. State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kovalev, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) director, speculated that the organizers of the attack could be found “among the heads of energy companies,” but added that he thought the attack was meant to intimidate Chubais, not kill him (Moscow Times, March 18).
Some of Chubais’ allies, however, saw the attack as politically motivated. Boris Nemtsov — who, like Chubais, is a leader of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) — said he thought the theory that the attack was business-related was improbable because Chubais is involved in big business, which “for a long time already has excluded such barbaric methods for sorting things out.” “For me, it’s completely obvious that the attempt on his life was political and not connected to the reform of UES,” Nemtsov said. “As for the motive, Chubais has a huge number of enemies, and there is also no small number of scoundrels…Many of them do not hold back from publicly calling for violence against Chubais” (Nezavisiamaya gazeta, March 18).
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), said he believed the attack on Chubais was “a signal to pro-Western democratic forces in Russia to end their activities and return stolen money.” Stating that “extremist forces” have recently become more active in Russia, Zhirinovsky said the “thread” of the attack on Chubais might be traced back to Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, the Communists, or “the Rogozin brigade” — a reference to Dmitry Rogozin, the State Duma deputy who heads the Rodina party (newsinfo.ru, March 17). Rodina has repeatedly demanded that Chubais be removed as head of UES and in November 2003, during Russia’s parliamentary election campaign, Rogozin even suggested that Chubais be jailed.
Following yesterday’s attack on Chubais, Rogozin said: “It is not the kind of situation in which one should taunt or gloat over the misfortunes of one’s implacable enemies. But concerning Chubais, I can only say one thing: it was not us. We wouldn’t have missed” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 18).
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said he thought the attack was either a “gangster settling of scores or a bloody simulation” (regnum.ru, March 18). Likewise, Kremlin-connected spin-doctor Gleb Pavlovsky said he thought the attack was staged, adding that he hoped “Chubais himself had nothing to do with it.” “Shooting at an armored automobile from automatic rifles is senseless,” Pavlovsky said. He added the incident might have been an “imitation terrorist attack” designed to “cast a shadow on the authorities,” given that “it happened in a guarded zone that has heightened security and includes the routes for governmental and presidential motorcades” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 18).
Whatever the case, mafia-style hits, while less frequent than in the early 1990s, remain all-too-real in today’s Russia. On March 3, for example, three people were killed and two wounded in southwest Moscow when gunmen opened fire on a Mercedes S-500 and the Mercedes Vito minivan accompanying it. Police identified two of those killed as businessmen (newsru.com, March 3). On February 28, Semyon Bobin, the former first deputy chairman of the Garant-Invest commercial bank, was shot to death at the entrance of his apartment building in central Moscow. Police said they were certain his murder was a contract killing (newsinfo.ru, March 1).