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Kidnapping Mystery Raises Questions About Lawlessness In Russia

  • Kevin O'Flynn

The kidnapping was an unexpected attack on a victim close to the powerful Rosneft.

The kidnapping was an unexpected attack on a victim close to the powerful Rosneft.

MOSCOW -- Mikhail Stavsky was leaving Gubkin State Oil and Gas University, a prestigious college in the south of Moscow for future energy-sector workers, when two men came up and bundled him into a car.

That was on April 14. Nothing has been heard since from Stavsky, whose father, also Mikhail Stavsky, is a vice president at Rosneft.

The incident only came to light after the investigative newspaper "Novaya gazeta" published the story on June 1. The Investigative Committee later confirmed the report and said investigators had two computer-generated images of the suspects, although they did not release them to the public.

Stavsky's family has since offered a reward for information leading to his release.

"Novaya gazeta" published the story with the headline "Who Allowed It?" referring to the power of state-owned Rosneft and its highly placed backers, and expressing surprise that anyone had acted against someone close to the organization.

Rosneft is regarded as under the control of Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who heads its board of directors and is seen as leading the siloviki --powerful individuals with links to the security services and other agencies -- within the Russian government.

“Novaya gazeta,” an independent paper, asked why the kidnappers felt they could strike at Sechin's interests.

“Either the criminals have lost all sense of fear or they have high-ranking patrons who can allow themselves to attack the top management of the largest Russian companies,” the article stated.

Rosneft has refused to comment on the matter.

Some sources told “Novaya gazeta” that the kidnappers had asked for a 50 million-euro ($71 million) ransom, while others said nothing had been heard from the abductors. Other media later quoted a member of Stavsky’s family as saying there had been no demands.

Breakdown Of Law And Order

A number of businessmen and their relatives have been kidnapped in recent years, with “Novaya gazeta” listing eight such cases in the last four years. The biggest recent case was the kidnapping of LUKoil Vice President Sergei Kukura in 2001. He was released almost two weeks later, although LUKoil denied it had paid a reported $6 million ransom.

The Investigative Committee and the Interior Ministry have joined forces to investigate the spate of kidnappings, “Novaya gazeta” reported.

Experts like Dmitry Oreshkin, the head of the Mercator think tank, see the brazen kidnapping as a sign of a breakdown of law and order in Russia.

“If they steal children from Rosneft -- Rosneft is first of all a strong state structure, secondly belonging to Sechin and having excellent links with the FSB [Federal Security Service], the spine of economic development -- you understand that claims that [Vladimir] Putin came to power to bring order is just empty talk,” Oreshkin said.

Oreshkin does not see the kidnapping as targeting Sechin in particular. He blames Putin for allowing the special services complete leeway in their actions, including going into business. As the global economic crisis hits home and money becomes tighter, they are becoming more aggressive, and stability and control is slipping.

The "power vertical" built by Putin is crumbling, Oreshkin said. “It is a sign that the symbolic or virtual essence of the vertical was preserved until this moment only because there was enough money in the country to buy the loyalty of the elite, and as soon as it finished, the symbolic vertical ended,” he said.

Inside Men

High-profile kidnappings are usually organized by former or active secret-service or police officers, according to Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the National Strategy Institute. Belkovsky sees the abductions as a sign that criminals are gaining greater power in Russia, with organized groups battling for control.

“We’ve seen the killing of governors, of federal officials in recent times,” Belkovsky said. “We just have to remember Andrei Kozlov, first deputy chairman of the Central Bank. All these actions have been carried out by organized criminal groups, and it shows that organized crime is at the least no weaker than in the previous decade.”

Supporters of the Kremlin, like analyst and United Russia Duma Deputy Sergei Markov, say that business and crime are still entwined, but that Russia has come a long way since the 1990s.

“You know those who say it is little different from the '90s are not just mistaken, they are lying, as it is clear that the level of criminality and chaos was much greater then,” Markov said.

“Novaya gazeta” pinned the blame in the Stavsky case on Vitaly Marchenko, otherwise known as Shilin, a career criminal who specializes in kidnapping and has good security connections. After being arrested in 2005, he was inexplicably released the next day, and now works from Uruguay.

A former police officer is currently in jail on suspicion of kidnapping, but in yet another counter-theory, speculated that he had been framed because he was making progress in his own investigation of Shilin.