Hundreds mourn editor in Moscow

July 15, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Several hundred mourners attended a requiem service yesterday for an American journalist whose killing last week on a Moscow street has raised questions about the survival of press freedoms in Russia.

Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes magazine's new Russian edition and the author of a book about Russia's buccaneer capitalists of the 1990s, was shot at least four times as he left work at twilight Friday. According to the latest reports in the Russian press, two men opened fire with pistols from a car as Klebnikov passed on the sidewalk.

Klebnikov died, newspapers here said, while stuck for at least 15 minutes in a stalled hospital elevator on his way to the operating room.

Klebnikov, 41, was regarded by many here as a countryman, even a patriot, for exposing the machinations of the billionaires, called oligarchs, who virtually ran the country during the era of President Boris N. Yeltsin.

"We say farewell to a hero who fell victim in the struggle against evil," one of the priests conducting yesterday's services said.

Among the mourners were a smattering of government officials, including Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, who has assumed control of the Klebnikov case.

Despite Ustinov's intervention, the Russian media reported yesterday that the investigation has yielded little progress. None of the high-profile killings of journalists in post-Soviet Russia has been solved.

After the service, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow said the FBI's liaison office in Moscow had volunteered to help investigate the killing, considered the first of a prominent American journalist in Russia. Russian law enforcement officials have not accepted the offer.

To dispel doubts about this nation's progress, Vershbow said, it is important that the Russian government pursue the case aggressively. "We have seen over the past 10 years greater stability in this country, a strengthening of the judicial system and of law enforcement," he said. "But the outrageous nature of this crime is going to raise some questions."

During a news conference at the U.S. Embassy yesterday morning, Klebnikov's older brothers, Michael, a 48-year old college teacher, and Peter, a 47-year old journalist, expressed confidence that the killers will be caught.

"We are supremely confident that the Russian authorities ... will do everything they can to bring the murderers to justice," said Michael Klebnikov.

Paul Klebnikov moved to Russia six months ago on a one-year contract as editor of Forbes' Russian edition, his brothers said. He wanted to make the move permanent, they said, and was trying to persuade his wife to move here with their three children.

He had reported from Russia from time to time for many years and understood that it could be a risky place to work. Michael Klebnikov said his brother hired a bodyguard several years ago, unusual for journalists outside a war zone.

Michael Klebnikov said his brother had recently felt safe enough to live on his own, without protection, and ride the Metro to work.

There has been much speculation here about possible motives for the killing. One popular theory is that he angered one or more tycoons on the Forbes list of the 100 richest Russians, published in May. Another possibility is that Klebnikov was killed to stop him from working on an investigative project.

Colleagues at the magazine said he was too busy with administrative duties to write, but Valery Streletsky, Klebnikov's Russian publisher, said Klebnikov was gathering material for a book about the 1995 killing of television talk-show host Vladislav Listyev. "Only those in his close circle knew it," he said.

Listyev, probably the most respected media figure in Russia before his death, was named general director of the newly privatized ORT television network in 1995. He soon canceled an arrangement that had granted the company Advertising-Holding a monopoly on the sale of ORT's advertising.

In his book Godfather of the Kremlin, Klebnikov reported that Advertising-Holding was partly controlled by tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

Returning from work on March 1, 1995, Listyev walked into the stairwell of his apartment house. Someone was waiting for him with a pistol. Listyev died of two gunshot wounds.

There was an outpouring of public outrage and grief. The anchorman of one nationwide evening newscast started with a moment of silence, then asked: "Who will be next?"

Klebnikov, in a profile of Berezovsky for Forbes in 1996, linked the tycoon to Listyev's death. Berezovsky called the article "a compilation of thoughts, a garbling of facts and straight lies." He filed a libel suit in a British court, which he withdrew in 1993 after the magazine admitted that it had no evidence Berzovsky had ordered any killings.

Streletsky said Klebnikov remained determined to pursue an investigation of the case.

A spokesman for Berezovsky said yesterday that he would not comment.

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