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Ukraine: Kyiv Assassination Leaves Trail Of Intrigue

Maksim Kurochkin (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) March 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- What promises to be one of Ukraine's biggest scandals of the year emerged this week when a Russian-Ukrainian businessman known as "Mad Max" was assassinated in Kyiv.

Maksim Kurochkin's high-profile connections have fueled a storm of speculation about the possible reasons behind his death.

The fact that Kurochkin was one of the major Russian supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's failed presidential bid in 2004 has attracted much attention in the wake of the killing.

One unsolved mystery that derives from the campaign is determining who is responsible for poisoning candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

And Kurochkin's business and political ties are not being discounted as a possible motive, Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Kupyanskyy said on March 28.

"We are following several leads, including Kurochkin's activity in the Russian Federation," Kupyanskyy said. "We do not rule out a possible link to his activity in Russia. The reason for most contract killings is associated with conflict situations linked with the commercial activities or business interests of the victim."

Kurochkin was shot in broad daylight on March 27 while being escorted from a Kyiv courthouse by three police officers.

The bullet went through his heart and he died soon afterward. One of the police escorts was wounded by the same bullet. The shot is believed to have come from the 8th floor of a nearby building where police later found a rifle they suspect is the murder weapon. The shooter escaped.

The Russian Club

Kurochkin was the founder of the Russian Club in Kyiv, an organization with which many prominent Russian "political technologists," including Gleb Pavlovsky and Kremlin aide Igor Shuvalov, worked on behalf of Yanukovych during his presidential campaign. The club had the active support of Russian Abassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin and included many prominent supporters of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma among its ranks.

After the Orange Revolution brought Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency, a warrant for Kurochkin's arrest was issued by then-Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko.

Kremlin aide Igor Shuvalvo (right) played a key role in Yanukovych's 2004 presidential campaign (official site)

Kurochkin was charged with extortion in a number of business deals in Kyiv involving the Hotel Dnipro, an outdoor market, and three sanatoriums in the Crimea that he was accused of obtaining illegally.

Kurochkin returned to Moscow after the election and then, in an unexpected move, decided to return to Ukraine in November 2006, where he was arrested at Kyiv's Borispil Airport.

Soon afterward, Lutsenko was forced out of his Interior Ministry post by the cabinet headed by Yanukovych, who had become prime minister earlier in the year.

Reason To Be Afraid

During Kurochkin's pretrial hearing on March 27 -- just minutes before he was killed -- he pleaded with the judge to release him and claimed that a contract had been put out on him. "I don't want to die" he reportedly told the presiding judge, who nonetheless ordered him to remain in confinement.

Kurochkin apparently had reason to fear for his life.

In 2004, he survived a bomb attack outside his Russian Club. In March 2007, a bullet-riddled Toyota Landcruiser was found on a highway outside Kyiv containing the bodies of his bodyguard and two close associates. His business partner, Volodymyr Vorobyov, was killed in Dnipropetrovsk in late 2006.

There are also more recent developments that add intrigue to the circumstances of Kurochkin's killing.

The "Ukrayinska pravda" website noted that by returning to Ukraine voluntarily, Kurochkin knew that he faced immediate arrest, yet he chose to do so nevertheless.

This has led to inference that Kurochkin may have been considering revealing what he knew about the workings of the Russian Club and any dirty tricks used during the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election in return for his freedom. One unsolved mystery that derives from the campaign is determining who is responsible for poisoning candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

Yanukovych Reacts

The man who opposed Yushchenko in the contentious election, Prime Minister Yanukovych, expressed his concern about Kurochkin's killing and other recent crimes during a cabinet meeting on March 28.

"The recent crime situation in the regions is worrisome, particularly the high-profile killings, including yesterday's," Yanukovych said. "We had also faced similar situations in several regions before that. We agreed that individual operative groups would be set up to deal with those regions. I would like to hear your report now."

Putin (left) offered considerable support to Yanukovych during the disputed 2004 presidential election (epa)

The Kurochkin case promises to reopen numerous questions about the nature of the 2004 election in Ukraine. Firstly, why did Yanukovych's team work with Kurochkin? And why did Chernomyrdin, Pavlovsky, and Shuvalov -- men with direct ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin -- agree to be associated with an organization created by a man with a criminal record in Russia and Ukraine?

The Ukrainian opposition will also likely question the effectiveness of a Yanukovych appointee, Vasyl Tsushko, as Lutsenko's replacement as interior minister. "Ukrayinska pravda" pointed out that Tsushko had failed to protect the life of a high-profile suspect wanted on serious criminal charges -- and that this alone should compel him to resign.

The assassination was highly unusual. The use of a high-powered rifle strays from the more common close-range use of handguns, automatic weapons, or even bombs during assassination bids.

Deputy Interior Minister Kupyanskyy said on March 28 hat the investigation is focusing on two suspected perpetrators of the attack.

"There were two criminals -- [one] 1.85 meters tall, [the other] 1.75 meters -- fit, wearing black masks and jackets," Kupyanskyy said. "They disappeared from the scene of the crime in a silver Mazda. Later, this car was found in a yard at Lesya Ukraynka Street in Kyiv. The investigation and the search for the owner of the car is under way."

What is certain is that the assassin was a highly trained marksman, considering Kurochkin was shot through the heart from a distance of 300 meters.

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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