Slaying in Moscow

 

By Peter Lavelle

Published on July 12, 2004

 

This article was written for UPI - United Press International MOSCOW, July 12 (UPI) -- Paul Klebnikov, editor of "Forbes Russia," was killed in Moscow on Friday night. There is every indication he was a victim of a professional contract assassination.

 

Being an expert investigative journalist, Klebnikov quickly amassed numerous foes among Russia's wealthy elite. In Russia, it remains dangerous to talk and write about other people's money. A strong opponent of Russia's "oligarchic" economy, Vladimir Putin has lost one of his most articulate supporters.

 

It is believed that Klebnikov was gunned down by two assailants -- four of the nine bullets fired hitting the intended target. Klebnikov, who was found by a magazine employee, died before receiving emergency medical care. Before he died, it is reported that he said he had no idea who would want to kill him.

 

Author of the highly regarded bestseller, "Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia," Klebnikov was relatively new to Moscow -- but was no stranger to Russian politics and business. Of Russian descent and at Forbes for 15 years, his coverage of Russia's very corrupt transition to a market economy was a benchmark of quality writings for journalists and analysts.

 

On April 22, Vladimir Lenin's birthday, Klebnikov launched publication of "Forbes Russia," writing that Russia had "began a new, more civilized stage of development." The following month, the magazine's very popular flagship product of ranking the country's wealthiest individuals was a media sensation. In the same issue he wrote, "The era of so-called bandit-capitalism is already in the past. In the mid-90s it was very, very dirty process."

 

Forbes' ranking of the wealthy is known worldwide, but not in Russia. Journalists are often killed in Russia for writing on corruption and how the wealthy generate income. Thus, when Russian media do comment on the wealth of the business elite, it does so with caution. "Forbes Russia" did not use caution -- it carefully calculated.

 

With the publication of the "100 richest," many in the ranking claimed their wealth was grossly over-estimated and were outraged by the intense media coverage. To add to their concerns, the Kremlin's leading auditing and investigative agencies commented that Klebnikov's methodology and conclusions were accurate. This instantly made Klebnikov's a very unpopular media figure among Russia's "oligarchs" and the wealthy in general.

 

Publication of "Forbes Russia" comes at a time when the wealthy are carefully watching the legal travails of Russia's richest individual, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the Kremlin's assault on the country largest privately own company, the oil giant, Yukos. With hints that the Kremlin intends to take down other oligarchs, the last thing the wealthy want is a higher media profile. There was every reason to believe that Klebnikov intended to keep doing what he was best at -- expert coverage of illegal business activity in Russia.

 

Since May, Klebnikov regularly appeared on television talks shows. He was openly critical of Russia's transition from communism -- which created a small group of super-rich, the oligarchs. Klebnikov also expressed his support of Vladimir Putin and the president's economic reform efforts. With the Kremlin's continuing offensive against the oligarchs, Klebnikov most likely was seen as an outsider meddling in the affairs of others.

 

Klebnikov came to Russia full of enthusiasm and optimism. He came to a Russia that he believed no longer had to resort to high-profile contract killings. Klebnikov had come to believe that lawyers and the law itself was enough protection when writing openly and professionally about Russian business. It is a tragic irony that Klebnikov was probably killed by the people he investigated and publicly despised -- corrupt officials and the darker side of the business world.

 

Russia's officialdom was quick to condemn Klebnikov's murder, with General Prosecutor Vladimir Ustinov personally taking charge of the investigation. Since Friday, the Moscow rumor mill has created a checklist of possible reasons for the slaying -- all pointing to subjects and people Klebnikov wrote about over the last four months or speculation on what he intended to write.

 

However, given the authorities' poor record with solving professional hits, few in Moscow expect to learn the truth behind Klebnikov's murder -- let alone see the culprits convicted in court.

 

Russia's print journalism has suffered a terrible loss with the passage of Paul Klebnikov. Russia itself is poorer as well. Klebnikov's faith that a new Russia is in the making has been dealt a severe setback.