Contract killings hit record high in Russia

Irish Times
Aug 05, 2004

Chris Stephen in Moscow


Russia: Contract killings in Russia have hit record levels, puncturing
the hope that the country has left the era of "gangster capitalism"
behind, according to a senior crime official here.

Between 500 and 700 Russians a year are killed by business rivals,
according to crime official Mr Leonid Kondratyuk, a top Interior
Ministry official.

The news comes a month after American journalist Paul Klebnikov,
editor of Forbes Russia, died in a hail of bullets fired by an
assassin in Moscow. Mr Kondratyuk told the Moscow Times that even his
estimate of 500 to 700 was conservative because it counted only those
murders definitely linked to organised crime, and that the true figure
could be "two to three times higher".

His statement follows similar claims earlier this year by a former
prosecutor, Mr Valentin Stepankov, who said total crimes attributable
to mafia groups had passed the 25,000 mark in four years.

Russia attracted the nickname the "Wild East" in the 1990s, when
gangsters fought turf wars in the free-for-all that followed the end
of Communism.

The government hoped the arrival of tough central control from
President Vladimir Putin, coupled with rising prosperity, had put an
end to these murders, but this prosperity may actually be encouraging
a new wave of blood-letting.

Klebnikov was one of two journalists murdered in Moscow last month -
also killed was Paila Peloya, editor of an Armenian-language
newspaper, who, like Klebnikov, was shot dead in broad daylight. Since
Mr Putin took office in 2000, 15 journalists have been murdered, along
with six MPs and dozens of suspected gangster bosses.

Prominent killings include the shooting last summer of Igor Klimov,
chief of defence giant Almaz-Antei. The option of contract killing is
sometimes used as a last resort in business disputes. Typically, if a
firm refuses to honour its end of a contract, remedies such as going
to court may be useless, with judges sometimes bribed or the state law
simply unable to get back money owed.

The rise in contract killings comes despite a fall overall in recorded
crime. The number of murders in Russia fell 8 per cent last year,
though remained high at 16,240. Some doubt the official claims. Andrei
Konstantinov, a crime journalist with the Agency of Journalistic
Investigations in St Petersburg, said his interpretation of official
figures is that there are fewer contract killings, not more.

Konstantinov said police often know the identity of contract killers,
but lack evidence, and in particular witnesses, to bring the guilty to
court. He blames a collapse in moral values for the high level of gun
crime.

"It is wrong to blame the police or courts. You have to educate the
people that it is wrong, and the people in the state."

But contract killings are not the sole preserve of the mafia. While
some killings are said to cost tens of thousands of dollars to
organise, at the other end of the spectrum a murder can be arranged
for as little as $300.

Russia's media regularly report on husbands killing wives or
mothers-in-law by paying homeless people small amounts of money to
carry out the killings. These crimes are rarely solved because the
murderer has no connection to the victim.