Journalist riled Russia's elites

Klebnikov: The American editor of the Russian Forbes magazine, slain Friday, was known to rattle the cages of the country's richest people.

July 11, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The American journalist Paul Klebnikov was finishing dinner with his wife, Marjorie, on Monday when she said she was worried about his safety.

Klebnikov, editor of the 3-month-old Russian edition of Forbes magazine, and his guest, reporter Mark Franchetti, told her there was no reason for concern.

"Both Paul and I were basically reassuring her, telling her that Russia has changed and that people were starting to resort to lawyers as opposed to contract killers," said Franchetti, of the The Sunday Times of London, in an interview yesterday.

The 41-year-old Klebnikov, whose work explored the sordid back alleys of Russian capitalism, might have paid for his optimism with his life.

Hit men often strike Russian corporate and political figures, and Russian journalists are frequently attacked. But some Western professionals living here feel immune to the orchestrated violence. Klebnikov's slaying late Friday shattered that illusion.

As he walked out of the Forbes offices in Northeast Moscow shortly before 10 p.m. Friday, one of three men sitting in a Zhiguli sedan pulled out a Makarov semiautomatic pistol and started firing.

Four of the bullets struck Klebnikov before the sedan sped away, police said. A colleague working in the same building found Klebnikov dying on the sidewalk minutes later. "He said he didn't know why he had been shot," Alexander Gordeyev, editor of the Russian edition of Newsweek magazine, told the Associated Press.

The Moscow prosecutor's office described the slaying as a contract killing yesterday and called the case "a matter of extreme importance."

Klebnikov, who began reporting on Eastern Europe and Russia for Forbes in 1989, spent years tracking the shadowy deals that underpin many of Russia's personal fortunes.

As the recently named editor of the Russian Forbes, Klebnikov published a list of the 100 richest Russians in May. The story outraged some tycoons, who wanted to remain in the shadows.

Irritating Russia's billionaires is not a prescription for good health. "The attempts to shed light on the state of our businessmen, on their type of activities, is a very dangerous profession," Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Union of Journalists, told the Interfax news agency.

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists has documented 14 cases in the past 4 1/2 years in which reporters and editors in Russia were killed in connection with their work. No one has been convicted in any of the killings.

Forbes, which trumpets itself as "the capitalist's tool," launched its Russian edition at a party held April 22, Lenin's birthday. In its first issue, Klebnikov wrote an upbeat editorial declaring that Russia had "begun a new, more civilized stage in its development."

According to reports here yesterday, Klebnikov had received death threats after the publication of the 100-richest list. The magazine reported that Moscow had more billionaires - 36 - than any other city in the world.

But if Klebnikov felt his life was in danger, Franchetti said, he didn't betray it over last week's dinner. "There was no indication he had any reason to be worried about anything," he said.

The slaying raised suspicions that its goal was to silence Klebnikov.

But his colleagues at the magazine said he had been working as a manager in recent months, not as a reporter.

"Paul is a specialist in investigations, one of the best in the world, but he hasn't been doing it since winter because he had a lot of administrative work to do, a lot of editing, staff training," Leonid Bershidsky, publisher of the Russian version of Forbes, told the Internet news site Lenta.ru. "He hasn't been digging for the magazine for a long time."

Klebnikov made his reputation digging. He wrote a scathing profile of Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky for Forbes in 1996, calling him a "powerful gangland boss." The article seemed to imply that Berezovsky, then an influential figure in the Kremlin, was linked to the 1995 slaying of a television personality.

Berezovsky filed a lawsuit, settled last year when Forbes admitted that there was no evidence linking the financier to the murder.

Klebnikov elaborated on his unflattering portrait of Berezovsky in a book in 2000 titled Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism. Berezovsky, meanwhile, fled Russia, describing himself the victim of political persecution by President Vladimir V. Putin.

Efforts to reach Berezovsky in London yesterday were unsuccessful. But the Ria-Novosti wire service reported that the tycoon said Klebnikov was a victim of his "lack of accuracy" in reporting.

"Unfortunately, his way of reporting the facts was very arbitrary," Berezovsky said. "He invented much. It seems that he seriously upset someone."

In May, Russia Forbes reported that Berezovsky was worth $620 million, ranking 47th in the magazine's list of 100.

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