In post-Soviet Russia, politics proves perilous profession

Scores of mayors, vice governors, local officials, regional lawmakers and Duma deputies have been assassinated in recent years.

Most Russians were horrified when a professional hit man gunned down Valentin Tsvetkov, governor of the sprawling, resource-rich Russian region of Magadan, in broad daylight on a busy street near the Kremlin two months ago. But few were surprised.

Mr. Tsvetkov was the highest-ranking post-Soviet Russian official to fall victim to a contract killing, but otherwise, the event was unextraordinary.

A spiralling death-by-assassination rate has put politician right up there with army conscript and test pilot as one of the most dangerous jobs a Russian can have these days.

Scores of mayors, vice governors, local officials, regional lawmakers and Duma deputies have been rubbed-out, mob-style, in recent years and the rate shows no signs of slowing, despite the law-and-order presidency of Vladimir Putin.

"Although we provide more and more funding for law enforcement each year, the results are increasingly disappointing," says Gennady Seleznyov, Speaker of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. "Criminals feel invincible, and no wonder. I cannot remember a single case where the murder of a politician has been successfully investigated and the culprit sentenced by a court."

The slaying of Magadan's governor was typical in a second way. Though Tsvetkov was a dynamic and outspoken regional leader, even his close colleagues scoffed at the suggestion his murder might be connected to his political convictions or activities.

"I believe this was not a political killing," Sergei Mironov, Speaker of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament where Tsvetkov had served several years, told news agencies. "The governor must have harmed someone's business interests. Magadan means fish and gold."

Though the crime is unsolved, the Russian media has widely reported that Tsvetkov personally owned Magadan's largest gold refinery, and had been trying to take the entire local gold mining industry under his control.

So far this year about a dozen politicians and officials have been attacked or murdered in Moscow alone.

In February, the deputy mayor of the Arctic oil center of Surgut, Sergei Ivanov, was gunned down. In June, first deputy mayor of Moscow in charge of gambling and foreign investment, Iosif Ordzhonikidze, survived an elaborate ambush on the same highway used by Mr. Putin to drive to work. It was the third attempt on Mr. Ordzhonikidze's life in two years.

In August, liberal Duma deputy Vladimir Golovyov was shot while walking his dog in a quiet Moscow suburb. Two bodyguards accompanying him claimed to have seen nothing. Fellow parliamentarians said the murder was probably connected to Mr. Golovyov's previous dealings as a privatization official in Siberia.

None of these crimes have been solved; nor are most of the approximately 5,000 contract killings that occur in Russia each year. (Murders of all kinds in Russia total about 33,500 annually.)

Experts say the high frequency of attacks on politicians is misleading.

"Politicians in Russia are seldom killed because they are politicians, but because they are people who combine things that shouldn't be combined," says Georgy Satarov, a former Kremlin adviser and head of the independent InDem Foundation, a political research center. "Politicians in this country are often agents of special business interests, and that's what puts them in the risk group," he says.

Mr. Satarov's center recently published a massive study of corruption in Russia, which found the most graft-prone institutions in the country are political parties, followed closely by the Duma, Federation Council, local governments and the Cabinet.

Berlin-based Transparency International, which tracks global corruption, has placed Russia among the world's top 10 offenders every year for the past decade.

"Power and business are merged in Russia today as never before," says Sergei Mikhailov, deputy head of the Center for Public Policy, an independent think tank. "Too many people are coming into politics to represent some industrial or financial group, or to advance their own business interests," he says.

In Russia it is not unusual for a regional governor - who controls courts and police forces -- to be a board member or even owner of large local business concerns. Western-style conflict of interest laws, full disclosure rules for politicians, and independent media scrutiny hardly exist.

"Only in developed countries do people actually get killed for their political beliefs," says Viktor Pokhmelkin, a Duma deputy with the Liberal Russia group. In Russia, he says, "most so-called political murders have the serious taste of money."

Experts say the problem has roots in Russia's messy transition from communism, when many former Party officials and other insiders abused their access to power to acquire property. In 1996 several of Russia's business "oligarchs" financed then-President Boris Yeltsin's uphill re-election bid, and were later rewarded with unprecedented Kremlin entree. Some, including tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Potanin, were given high government posts which many experts say they used to further private business interests.

"As always, big business means small politics," says Alexei Podberyozkin, a former Duma deputy and head of the left-wing Socialist United Party. "Politics has come to be all about shady money deals and business conflicts."

Berezovsky was the intended target of at least two assassination attempts.

President Putin, a former KGB officer, came to power almost three years ago pledging to clean up the system. But some experts charge that Putin's efforts to strengthen Kremlin authority have aggravated the problem by diminishing the role of parliament and local legislatures.

"Under Putin, politicians have been reduced to lobbyists, peddling influence in the corridors of power," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a parliamentary leader of the pro-government Unity Party, and generally regarded as one of Russia's most professional politicians. "It should be no surprise that politicians are being killed in large numbers. The quality of Russian politics is deteriorating; it is becoming a corrupted sphere of activity. In such an environment, intrigue always takes the stage."

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