Russians numb to killing of government officials

Assassinations common

professional hit men rarely caught, punished

`It's all about the money'

October 19, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - It was, as assassinations go, a fairly routine affair.

The governor of the Magadan district arrived at a federal building on Moscow's Novy Arbat, a strip of flashy casinos and stores not far from the Kremlin, at 8:45 a.m. yesterday. He was met by a man with a silencer-equipped Makarov pistol.

On the crowded, rain-darkened sidewalk, the gunman fired a single shot in the head of Valentin Tsvetkov, killing the 54-year-old on the spot.

The assassin left the gun nearby, a catch-me-if-you-can gesture popular among Russia's hit men. He and an accomplice drove away in a boxy Zhiguili sedan.

A motive was not immediately discernible. But like the other governors in the Russian Federation, Tsvetkov - a former metal worker - wielded enormous power over businesses in his region, 3,700 miles east of Moscow, which has gold mines as well as major fishing and fur industries.

One ally called Tsvetkov a reformer and hinted that his killers might have chafed at those reforms.

"Far from everybody is glad gold embezzlement loopholes in the Magadan region have been plugged and the Magadan seaport has become a government enterprise," Vladimir Pekhtin, a Duma deputy, told the Itar-Tass news service.

A swarm of investigators arrived on the scene yesterday, led by Moscow's police chief, Vladimir Pronin.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin - who drives along the Novy Arbat on his way to work - ordered his prosecutor general and interior minister to take personal charge of the investigation, the Interfax news agency reported.

Security cameras recorded the slaying, and a composite sketch of the killer was broadcast within hours. But no arrest had been made as of yesterday evening.

First governor shot

Tsvetkov was the first governor assassinated in the short and tumultuous history of the Russian Federation. But his was only the latest of many killings or attempted killings of elected and appointed government officials.

In August alone, hit men gunned down the deputy chief of Moscow's government-owned railroad system, a deputy governor from Smolensk, the deputy mayor of Novosibirsk and a deputy in the Duma, or lower house of parliament.

Over the past decade, a few assassination victims have been crusading journalists and honest bureaucrats killed, perhaps, by those who profit from corruption.

But in most cases, it's assumed victims were slain in disputes over the division of ill-gotten gains.

"Whatever they say about the political reasons for some contract murders, in fact it's all about the money," says Larisa Kislinskaya, a respected crime reporter for the newspaper Sovershenno Sekretno, or Top Secret.

Take the killing of Vladimir Golovlev, a Duma deputy, member of the Liberal Party and critic of the Putin administration. Golovlev was shot in September as he walked his dog outside his Moscow apartment.

Then, as yesterday, there was surprisingly little public outrage.

In Golovlev's case, most people seem convinced he was killed to prevent him from testifying against associates who profited from the privatization of industry in Chelyabinsk, the Ural Mountains district he represented.

He is routinely referred to in the newspapers as "the man who knew too much."

According to Russia's Audit Chamber, Tsvetkov's administration has been accused of diverting $42.1 million earmarked for developing a new state-owned gold mine to the owners of a Russian-American mining company, the Omolon Gold Mining Group.

One in five solved

Most Russian homicides are messy, domestic affairs that involve vodka and kitchen knives; they are easily solved. But Russia's prosecutors say only about one in five contract murders results in conviction of the organizers.

That almost certainly overstates the success rate in high-profile crimes such as Tsvetkov's killing. A total of eight members of the Duma have been slain, including Golovlev. None of those murders was ever solved.

"Criminals have a feeling they will never be punished," Gennady Seleznyov, speaker of the Duma, told Itar-Tass.

As a rule of thumb, says Sergei Galakhov, a police colonel who heads the Research Institute of the Ministry of the Interior, the more prominent the victim, the less likely an assassin will be caught.

Why? "Because," he said, "the crime is perfectly prepared, and there is big money involved and the best professionals are hired."

Pitted against these savvy criminals, he says, are inexperienced investigators, rapidly promoted to fill the ranks of senior detectives who have quit to work for private industry.

Yuri Shchekochikhin, chairman of the Duma committee on corruption, says Russians have been numbed by the sheer number of assassinations over the past decade.

"They regard them as a natural phenomenon, like the weather changing," he said.

The Duma deputy, who is also a journalist, blamed the failure to catch many assassins on corruption among police and prosecutors. Too often, he said, they have close ties to the people they are supposed to be investigating.

Only reforms can put an end to Russia's periodic political slayings, he said.

"The main effort we are making now is to fight the corruption in the police, prosecutors, in the FSB [Federal Security Bureau] and in the tax police," Shchekochikhin said.

Tsvetkov, a former member of parliament, was first elected governor of Magadan in 1996. He won a second term in November 2000, with 63 percent of the vote.

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