In Russia, assassination is often business as usual

3 government officials attacked in single day, one of them fatally shot

May 22, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - It was a bad day to be a bureaucrat in Moscow.

In the space of about 12 hours Thursday, assailants tried to kill three federal officials in separate incidents here: a civil court judge, the chief of information for the Russian Ministry of Justice and the director of the agency that prints banknotes and mints coins.

The justice official died of multiple gunshot wounds; the judge and the mint director were seriously injured.

The attacks, which did not appear related, were unusual only in that they came so closely together. Assaults on prominent government leaders are becoming commonplace in modern Russia, and they are seldom what they first appear.

Here, the line between public agencies, private companies and criminal enterprises is often blurred.

"In the majority of these cases, the results of the investigations show that it comes down to the issue of economic competition or the criminal settling of scores," said Oleg Nechiporenko, director of the National Anti-Criminal and Anti-Terror Fund.

The assassination May 9 of Akhmad Kadyrov, the president of the Russian republic of Chechnya - killed by a bomb during ceremonies marking the Allies' victory over Nazi Germany - might have been a rarity in Russia, a purely political assassination. A Chechen guerrilla leader, Shamil Basayev, claimed responsibility.

Often, murders are just a management tool.

Commercially inspired slayings have dogged Russia since the collapse of the Soviet state. Even though Russia's economy and government institutions have strengthened over the past decade, Nechiporenko said, the number of contract killings appears to be rising.

Killing a business rival is cost-effective and relatively risk-free, experts say, because so few of the cases are solved. Even Russia's most ruthless entrepreneurs, Nechiporenko said, are at heart conservative people. "They still preserve the methods they consider the most effective," he said.

The most prominent figure targeted Thursday was Arkady V. Trachuk, appointed director of Russia's state mint, Goznak, three years ago.

Three men jumped Trachuk as he returned to his apartment on the swank Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a few miles west of the Kremlin, about 10:50 p.m., the Itar-Tass news service reported.

Trachuk, in his late 30s, was beaten and stabbed repeatedly, although his assailants didn't bother to rob him. His condition was listed as grave yesterday.

Goznak traces its history back 186 years, to the Forwarding Agency of the State Paperstock. Its main business is printing currency and minting coins for the government.

But like many Russian government agencies, Goznak has a profit-making arm too. According to Association Goznak's annual report, it earned $49 million in 2002 by producing everything from Indonesian rupees to gold watch cases to phone cards.

"Formally, Goznak is a state-owned structure under the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation," Trachuk told the magazine Dengi, Kommersant in 2003. "But this status does not prevent it from being a commercial enterprise with the unique possibilities."

Goznak announced two weeks ago that it had started printing new, counterfeit-resistant ruble notes for release in July. The notes use sophisticated technology to make copying more difficult, including metallic strips woven into the fabric and inks that change color depending on the angle by which their viewed.

Goznak officials said they were shocked by the assault on Trachuk, an economist who lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and young son.

"I cannot even guess what was the reason for the attack," said spokeswoman Natalya Nikiforova, in a telephone interview. "We are a state company, working in a civilized market."

Judge Konstantin Krokhin of Russia's Court of Arbitration - which hears commercial disputes - was walking up the stairs of his apartment house southwest of the city center about 8 p.m., when he met a man loitering outside his door.

The man shot the 31-year-old Krokhin five times. He was taken to Moscow's Sklifosovsky emergency hospital, where he was treated for grave wounds in the chest and shoulder.

Marat Gazizov, the Ministry of Justice's director of research, was leaving his apartment building on Prospekt Mira north of central Moscow about 9:40 a.m. when an assailant shot him three times. His body was shown on Russian television, lying in a pool of blood.

The 42-year-old was reportedly on his way to a meeting at the Justice Ministry. Police said his slaying had all the earmarks of a contract hit.

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