Russia under President Vladimir Putin seemed a safer place compared to the 1990s -- when the killing of politicians, businessmen, and bankers seemed to be an almost daily occurrence. But that impression, carefully cultivated by the Kremlin, has now come under sharp scrutiny following the recent wave of apparent contract killings of leading figures in Russian banking and independent journalism.
Fall And Rise
Precise statistics are hard to come by. But some observers argue the recent string of killings does not change the fact that, overall, high-profile contract killings have diminished since peaking with the 1998 slaying of human rights advocate and State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova.
"Really high-profile contract killings are much rarer now than they were 12 or 15 years ago," says Mikhail Tukmachyov, who presents "Chrezvychainoye proisshestviye" (Emergency Event), a program on crime on Russia's NTV. "But this may have less to do with the authorities' success in tackling criminality than with the fact that authorities in our country have already divided the money between them. Many criminal groups have made up and found ways of coexisting more or less peacefully."
"What we are seeing today in Russia is huge corrupt deals within state companies. And if you have the big corrupt deals within state companies, then you have contract murders." -- economic expert Anders Aslund
Still, hired killings of low-profile targets, such as gangsters, appear to continue unabated. At a 2004 conference on crime in Moscow, Valentin Stepankov, then deputy secretary of the Security Council, estimated that in 2003 alone, organized crime gangs were responsible for some 5,000 contract killings across Russia.
As for high-profile victims, many observers say that the killings over the past month of two banking officials as well as of reporter Anna Politkovskaya show that contract killing remains a common means of settling accounts, eliminating competition, or suppressing media criticism of government policies.
Politkovskaya controversially exposed Russian military atrocities and human rights abuses in Chechnya. Many foreign observers are pointing the finger over her killing at the highest levels of the Kremlin.
In Brussels on October 11, Member of the European Parliament Daniel Cohn-Bendit of Germany's Green Party said that Politkovskaya's slaying was further proof that freedom of speech is under fire in Russia. And he urged German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who met with Putin on October 10, to hold the Russian leader to account when she and other EU leaders dine with him at a summit in Finland next week.
"Anna Politkovskaya had been invited twice by the Green faction. She was twice in the European Parliament. She told us about the situation in Chechnya and about the situation of the freedom of expression in Russia," Cohn-Bendit said. "Someone has said the ones responsible [for her killing] shall be called to account. You [Merkel] will be having dinner with the [one] responsible!"
Anders Aslund makes a similar accusation. A top economic expert on Russia, the Swedish-born Aslund minces no words in implicating the Kremlin in not only Politkovskaya's death but also that of Andrei Kozlov, the former Central Bank deputy chairman who led efforts to stamp out money laundering at banks before being gunned down on September 14.
"What we are seeing today in Russia is huge corrupt deals within state companies," Aslund said. "And if you have the big corrupt deals within state companies, then you have contract murders."
Following Kozlov's killing, Putin created a ministerial-level task force to fight economic crime and appointed former Labor Minister Gennady Melikyan to succeed Kozlov as bank regulator.
"Really high-profile contract killings are much rarer now than they were 12 or 15 years ago. But this may have less to do with the authorities' success in tackling criminality than with the fact that authorities in our country have already divided the money between them." -- NTV's Mikhail Tukmachyov
Speaking to RFE/RL by phone from Kyiv, Aslund called Melikyan the worst man for the job because of his reputation as bland and unaggressive. Aslund also accused Putin of essentially moving to dismantle the tough inspection system set up by Kozlov, whose committee had withdrawn more than 50 banking licenses.
"[Putin] says that we need to strengthen bank inspection, after which he demolishes bank inspection," Aslund said. "Both institutionally, by setting up this committee, giving the Prosecutor-General's Office the main responsibility for fighting money laundering -- that is, taking away responsibility from the very decent Central Bank. And secondly, by appointing the weakest person [Melikyan] going in the Central Bank to run the bank inspection responsibilities that remain."
At a news conference with Merkel in Dresden, Putin pledged that Politkovskaya's killers will not go unpunished. But he also appeared to dismiss speculation her slaying was politically motivated, saying her "ability to influence political life in Russia was extremely insignificant."
Aslund believes Politkovskaya's killing is clearly unrelated to the killings in the banking sector. But it has come about in the same political climate.
"What is related is the general sense that the top officials can do anything, that they're allowed to do anything," he said. "And of course, it was very striking that Putin did not say a word about this, or the Kremlin didn't say a word about this, until Putin was pressured by it in Germany. So he didn't volunteer any comments, suggesting that this [killing] is OK."
On October 11, EU officials said they would raise Politkovskaya's killing with Putin at their October 20 summit in Finland. Finnish European Affairs Minister Paula Lehtomaki, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, called the 48-year-old journalist's slaying "a major setback for freedom of expression in Russia." She called the case "a particularly important test of the rule of law in Russia" and urged Moscow to bring the perpetrators to justice.
(RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Claire Bigg contributed to this report.)