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Russia: Murder Of Governor Latest In String Of High-Profile Violence

  • Gregory Feifer

The assassination of a regional governor in Moscow last week, the first since the Soviet collapse, has been tied to "business disputes," usually a euphemism for the actions of organized criminal groups. Most contract killings remain unsolved. Last week's murder was the latest incident in a string of high-profile violence and underscores the perception that Russia largely remains lawless.

Moscow, 21 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Even in gritty Moscow, where violence is a part of daily existence and human life is often valued less than petty "business" considerations, residents were shocked at what happened as Friday morning's rainy rush-hour traffic jams took shape.

The governor of Russia's Far Eastern region of Magadan arrived at the province's representative office on one of the capital's busiest central streets, a gaudy stretch of neon-lit casinos, stores, and restaurants in a row of 1960s-era high-rise buildings.

The Novyi Arbat Street is well-policed, since it is part of the route to the Kremlin that many high-placed officials, including President Vladimir Putin, take to work each day.

That did not stop an assassin emerging from behind a billboard at 8:45 a.m. and firing a single pistol shot at the head of Valentin Tsvetkov, killing the 54-year-old instantly. The gunman also fired at the vice governor, who was accompanying Tsvetkov together with the governor's wife, but missed before hopping into a waiting Lada car and speeding away.

Passersby gawked at Tsvetkov's corpse, which remained sprawled for hours on the sidewalk as police investigated the scene.

Moscow Police Chief Vladimir Pronin, speaking on 18 October, did not reveal any secrets when he spoke about the possible motives behind Tsvetkov's murder. "What I can say, according to our preliminary investigation and our review of the murder scene, is that the killer shot him, and the leading theory is that the murder was connected to [Tsvetkov's] professional work," Pronin said.

The attack -- caught on two outdoor security cameras -- was the latest in a series of unsolved high-profile murders that has shown once again just how lawless Russia remains.

In August, liberal lawmaker Vladimir Golovlev was murdered with shots to the head as he was walking his dog one morning in northwest Moscow. His death was also tied to regional business interests.

As if to underscore a note of gloom following Tsvetkov's murder, a car bomb exploded Saturday outside a McDonald's restaurant in southwest Moscow in what is also being billed as a "business dispute."

Assassinations of politicians take place regularly in Russia -- on top of the by-now mundane-seeming murders of businessmen and crime figures -- and often target regional officials, as well as legislators. Nine national lawmakers have been murdered since the Soviet collapse; prosecutors reported a total of 327 contract killings last year alone.

The assassinations of well-known politicians usually have one factor in common: They are not thought to be politically motivated but are widely suspected to be the work of organized criminal groups or businessmen with whom the officials may have once cooperated but whose schemes or plans they began to threaten.

In Tsvetkov's case, speculation concerns the lucrative gold-mining and fishing industries of Magadan, a declining, isolated Pacific region perhaps known best for its Stalin-era labor camps.

Tsvetkov, a member of the pro-Kremlin Unity party, had served in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, being elected governor in 1996. Known as the "Bulldozer," he also had his own considerable business interests, including a gold-refining plant.

Mikhail Gorbunov, who covers Magadan as a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service, said Tsvetkov was highly effective in running a region in Russia's unruly conditions. But he added that many believe the governor went too far by controlling the region dictatorially. Among other actions, he took virtual control over the gold industry and shut down the independent press. "He couldn't care less about democracy," Gorbunov said about the man who was frequently dubbed a "reformer" in recent days.

Gorbunov agrees with other commentators from Magadan in citing economic and criminal scenarios behind Tsvetkov's murder.

The first is connected to the gold industry. "Izvestiya" reported that Magadan accounts for about 20 percent of the country's output of 154 tons of the precious metal.

Two days before the murder, Tsvetkov had approved a deal giving Canadian investors control over a gold-mining company in the region, the newspaper reported. He has been accused of diverting tens of millions of dollars earmarked for developing a mine owned by the company.

The governor was also determinedly cracking down on the gold black market, which is controlled by groups from the Caucasus region of Ingushetia, who transport it to Chechnya, Turkey, and other points of sale.

Another possibility is connected to the fish industry, on which Tsvetkov was also placing increasing limits. The governor was pushing the government to allow regions to allocate fishing quotas, a move that would have given him the power to allocate lucrative contracts in the industry.

Meanwhile, poaching of crab, salmon, and other fish is highly lucrative and estimated to bring in up to $14 million a year in the region, which is double the roughly $7 million figure known to investigators.

But the likeliest reason for Tsvetkov's murder is tied to the all-important flow of money between Moscow and Magadan in the form of so-called "gold credit." Gorbunov said that in the last decade, Magadan was given a credit equivalent to 7.5 tons of gold, worth $73 million to $75 million, most of which never made it to the region.

The money is thought to have remained in Moscow banks alleged to be under the control of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who negotiated the credit. Reports say Tsvetkov was determined to track the money down and send it to Magadan. "Forty-three [million dollars] remained only in Moscow. If Tsvetkov started unraveling those strings, then there's the full basis for proposing that he was immediately killed precisely for that reason," Gorbunov said.

For its part, the Interior Ministry has said the governor was also caught up in disputes with local companies.

Meanwhile, Putin called Tsvetkov's murder "a crime against the state."

Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov told reporters today the crime will be solved and criminal activity in Magadan attacked. "We have enough information about this, and we are certain that we will find the trail of those who carried out this contract killing," Gryzlov said.

But Yurii Shekhochikin, head of the Duma Corruption Committee and a crusading investigative reporter, said the guessing game behind the murder points to one of the fundamental problems in Russia, the massive corruption of law-enforcement agencies. "The very fact that such a murder of a high-profile governor could have taken place shows that our law-enforcement system doesn't work and that the people who should be running it only explain it after the crime is committed," Shekhochikin said.

Shekhochikin added that the fact that most high-profile murders concern business disputes shows that capitalism in Russia still has a long way to go to become civilized. "We still have a wild market system that cannot stand up to the fact that decisions are made as a result of the corruption of the judicial system. Decisions are made with the help of a bullet, a grenade, or a mine," Shekhochikin said.

Tackling the problem, Shekhochikin said, would require first of all changing law-enforcement personnel, cutting staff, and raising the miserly salaries that lead so many law enforcers to seek bribes.

Gorbunov, meanwhile, said the fact that Tsvetkov was the first governor to be assassinated in post-Soviet history cannot be overemphasized. It represents "a major step toward criminal appropriation of authority," he said. "If governors are now killed freely and the acts go unpunished, then Russia has found itself in a very bad spot," Gorbunov said.