Another Murder in Moscow

March 06, 1995

Russia cannot have a market economy if gunmen hijack its enterprises. Russia cannot achieve democracy if criminals corrupt every facet. The contract murder of the television personality Vladislav Listyev touched every Russian because it symbolizes the fate of the nation.

It was no different from the murders in the past year by organized crime of countless officials, politicians, bankers and industrialists that police have not solved -- except that Mr. Listyev had become Russia's premier celebrity.

That made his killing much more brazen than the gangland kidnapping and execution of some anonymous millionaire. It touched the nation. It brought President Boris Yeltsin to the studios of the network Ostankino, and to the home sets of the nation with his eloquent expression of sorrow, torment and rage at the power of crime.

Mr. Listyev, who has been compared to Larry King or David Letterman or Ted Koppel or all three, was at 38 made head of Ostankino, which is being semi-privatized effective April 1. Motives for the killing are the subject of speculation.

One possibility is control of some $170 million in annual revenues for advertising time that has been sold corruptly through fixers. Mr. Listyev as a reformer was a threat to criminal elements. Another possibility is control of the airwaves to favor one faction or candidate against another in future elections. And still another is competition from other broadcasters.

So insecure is the Russian populace, so under suspicion are all elements, that President Yeltsin's quick announcement of measures, including the firing of Moscow's police chief and chief prosecutor, only raised more suspicion.

His chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, told an interviewer that members of the president's personal security force under Maj. Gen. Alexander Korzhakov "are increasing their influence on the administration, on the government. They are expanding, they are putting personnel under their control, and there is much more, but that is only rumor."

In such a climate, many Muscovites fear Mr. Yeltsin's measures as similar to the dictator Josef Stalin's use of the assassination of his henchman Sergei Kirov in 1934 to terrorize opposition, real or imagined, in the Communist apparatus. Mr. Listyev, as a television personality, was trusted by the people. Mr. Yeltsin, as a power politician who may be losing his grip, is not.

What Mr. Yeltsin says needs to be done, freeing institutions from the corrosive grasp of crime, needs to be done if Russia is to make the transition to market economics and democracy. Part of Russia's tragedy is that the elected president is no more above suspicion than anyone else with guns and bodyguards in Moscow today.

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