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Analysis: American Journalist Klebnikov Gunned Down In Moscow

  • Victor Yasmann --> The 9 July killing in Moscow of Paul Klebnikov, the American-born editor of the Russian-language version of "Forbes" magazine, sent shock waves across the country and around the world. The investigation into the slaying is being supervised personally by Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov. Although it is too early in the probe to draw conclusions, officials have described the killing as "a paid hit linked to [Klebnikov's] professional activities as a journalist," according to Prosecutors have described the killing as "carefully planned," the website reported.

Russian media have reminded the public of two other killings of high-profile journalists -- the 1994 murder of "Moskovskii komsomolets" investigative journalist Dmitrii Kholodov and the 1995 killing of television personality and ORT General Director Vladislav Listev. There have been no convictions in connection with these or many other, lower-profile killings of journalists.

Klebnikov's life and career were intertwined with the fate of Russia. He was born in New York City in 1963 into a family of White Russian emigrants. His great-grandfather was a Tsarist-era admiral who was killed during the Bolshevik revolution, while his grandfather was a White Guard officer during the Civil War. His father, Yurii Klebnikov, was a U.S. translator during the Nuremburg tribunal of Nazi German war criminals, and he later worked as the chief of the UN's translation service.

Paul Klebnikov, who preferred to be called Pavel, studied political science at the University of California (Berkley) and political economics at the London School of Economics, where he got his doctorate in 1991. His dissertation analyzed the reforms carried out in 1906-14 by Russian Prime Minister Petr Stolypin.

Klebnikov joined "Forbes" in 1989, researching the world's largest companies. He began concentrating on Russia in the mid-1990s, and in 1996 he published the book "Boris Berezovsky: Godfather Of The Kremlin: The Decline Of Russia In The Age Of Gangster Capitalism." In the book, Klebnikov depicted Berezovskii as the guiding figure of "gangster capitalism" in Russia, implicating him in connection with a number of crimes, including the Listev murder. In response, Berezovskii sued Klebnikov and "Forbes" for defamation. In 2003, the two sides reached an out-of-court settlement. It was widely reported that Klebnikov apologized to Berezovskii and pledged not to repeat the allegations while Berezovskii dropped his financial claims, but Klebnikov told "Izvestiya" just hours before his killing that this impression was created by Berezovskii's public-relations team. In reality, Klebnikov said, there was no apology and Berezovskii simply withdrew his claim.
Although some Russian media outlets have speculated that Klebnikov's killing might be connected to the publication of the Golden One Hundred list, few analysts seriously believe that anyone on that list would have had anything to do with the slaying.

Klebnikov's next project, the April launch of the Russian version of "Forbes," also attracted attention. The first issue contained a list of the 100 richest people in Russia, including 36 purported billionaires. Although Western editions of "Forbes" have included Russians in their lists of the world's richest people since the early 1990s, this was the first such publication in Russia that presented the gap between rich and poor so starkly.

Not surprisingly, the list of the so-called Golden One Hundred provoked strong reactions. Many of those appearing on the list denounced it as complete speculation. editorialized at the time that the list is "a godsend for Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov" and that the Interior Ministry "will read 'Forbes Russia' with interest." Aleksandr Smolenskii, founder of the SBS-Agro financial group, called it "a list for firing squads," and Duma Property Committee Chairman Viktor Pleskachevskii (Unified Russia) told TV-Tsentr on 13 May that the "Forbes" figures are essentially correct.

Although some Russian media outlets have speculated that Klebnikov's killing might be connected to the publication of the Golden One Hundred list, few analysts seriously believe that anyone on that list would have had anything to do with the slaying. "They are not idiots who would expose themselves like this," an unidentified "Forbes" journalist told "Kommersant-Daily" on 12 July. The people on the "Forbes" list never deal with working journalists, preferring instead to work directly with media publishers and owners. They have such enormous financial and public-relations leverage that they do not need to cause a scandal by harming a journalist.

Most analysts believe Klebnikov was killed not in revenge for some past publication but to prevent the publication of new investigations. Russian Union of Journalists Secretary Mikhail Fedotov told "Novye izvestiya" -- which is controlled by Berezovskii -- on 12 July that the killing of a high-profile person like Klebnikov could hardly be "a settling of personal accounts with a journalist." He added that the criminals most likely want to prevent the kind of publicity that a publication like "Forbes" brings. "They did not want to kill Klebnikov but 'Forbes,'" Fedotov said. "There the continuation of 'Forbes' will be the best tribute to [Klebnikov]."

Former NTV General Director and Sputnik investment fund head Boris Jordan told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" -- which is also controlled by Berezovskii -- on 12 July that he knew Klebnikov for 20 years. He said the killers "must be very serious people if they dare to kill a foreign journalists and an American citizen." "They must understand that the killing will be investigated by the special services of both countries," Jordan said.

Center for Political Technologies Director Igor Bunin told "Vedomosti" on 12 July that Klebnikov was likely killed to prevent the publication of some future article. National Strategy Institute Director Stanislav Belkovskii was cited by the daily as expressing a similar opinion. TV-Tsentr commentator Aleksei Pushkov also backed this theory. He rejected a comment by Berezovskii, who told RIA-Novosti on 11 July that Klebnikov was a victim of his own "lack of accuracy" in reporting. "I can't remember a case in which a person in our country was killed for dealing inaccurately with information," Pushkov countered.

"Vremya novostei" noted on 12 July that hardly anyone in Russia is publicly speculating that Berezovskii is connected with the killing. Even the administration of President Vladimir Putin has avoided making this implication. Berezovskii is widely perceived to no longer be a serious Kremlin foe, and such accusations would paradoxically only serve to "raise" the tycoon's status.

Whoever is behind the crime, the killing of a U.S. journalist in Moscow is "a political provocation," the daily commented. Worse, it could be used in domestic political infighting, particularly as a justification for a new assault on the big-business community, "Vremya novostei" warned.