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Financial Times: Contract killers return to Russia: (‘with the state moving back into business… the lucrative energy and commodities sectors… violence could increase’)

By Neil Buckley in Moscow

Published: October 14 2006 03:00 | Last updated: October 14 2006 03:00

Do four contract killings in a month – including a senior central bank official and a crusading investigative journalist – show Russia is reverting to its “Wild East” days of the 1990s?

Experts on Russian crime see no return to the bloody quasi-anarchy of a decade ago, when rival criminal gangs waged a gun battle on a Moscow housing estate, and another lobbed an artillery shell into a downtown clinic to settle a score. But they warn that contract killings, which declined in the early years of this decade, are making a comeback – and likely to get worse.

That all four recent murders were apparently professional jobs is one factor linking the deaths of Andrei Kozlov, first deputy chair of the central bank, Enver Ziganshin, an engineer with the TNK-BP oil company, Anna Politkovskaya, a high-profile reporter, and Alexander Plokhin, a Moscow bank manager.

The other is that despite pledges from officials right up to President Vladimir Putin to bring the killers to justice, few believe the hitmen – or those who paid them – will be found.

“Probably they will find some kind of scapegoat for the high-profile cases” of Mr Kozlov and Ms Politkovskaya, said Carlo Gallo, a Russia research analyst at Control Risks, the security consultancy. “But with the others, the trend will go on – which is impunity.”

Some say Russian authorities lack the skill or political will to solve such cases. Mr Gallo notes that since contract hits are often subcontracted down a lengthy chain, killers themselves may not know who ordered a murder, making these crimes difficult to crack.

Contract murders became a feature of Russian life after the collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed vicious struggles for control of billions of dollars of former state property and of new business opportunities. Professional killings mushroomed from 100 in 1992 to 562 by 1994. They largely replaced the court system as a way of settling disputes.

Similar methods started being employed in the mid-1990s against journalists and politicians, notably those delving into corruption. Victims included Dmitry Kholodov, a reporter with Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, Vladislav Listyev, a television presenter, and Galina Starovoitova, a democratic politician.

Mr Gallo says business killings became fewer – though never disappeared – after Mr Putin became president in 2000. Law enforcement bodies at least partly regained control of their cities, and many criminal or semi-criminal groups embraced more legitimate methods to protect their gains.

The recent killings of Mr Plokhin and Mr Ziganshin may be the result of petty disputes. The murder of Mr Kozlov – the most senior official murdered during Mr Putin’s presidency, and a man who withdrew licences from dozens of banks suspected of money laundering – looks different.

“Most killings in the 1990s were about a turf battle between different businesses,” says Michael Denison, a lecturer on Russian politics at the University of Leeds. “Now they’re starting to be about battles between business and the state.”

Mr Denison says the central bank official may have been killed precisely because he was showing signs of winning the battle against the remaining criminal elements in Russian banking. But with the state moving back into business, particularly in the lucrative energy and commodities sectors, the scope for violence could increase.

Rights activists say political killings, including those of journalists, have already got worse under Mr Putin. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says Ms Politkovskaya was the 13th Russian journalist to die in a professional killing since 2000.

Mr Gallo says cases such as hers and that of Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia murdered in 2004, may be the tip of an iceberg of attacks on journalists. Many, because they occur at local level, never get reported. Local reporters frequently risk beatings or worse if they try to investigate corruption. The general tendency towards authoritarianism, control of the press, and treating any opposition as enemies rather than competitors, leads to a “mood of impunity for perpetrators” of such crimes.

That creates particular dangers as it is running in parallel with the rise of extreme and sometimes violent far-right groups in Russia. Ms Politkovskaya, known for exposing human rights abuses in the war in Chechnya, was listed among 63 “non-friends of Russia” on an ultra-nationalist website, though experts say her murder did not look like a racist attack. “The authorities are not necessarily involved in ordering killings of journalists,” says Mr Gallo. “But they are necessarily involved in the fact that 95 per cent of these killings go unpunished.”

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