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Murder Mystery : Russia Buries Yet Another Slain Business Group Member

August 11, 1995|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — One by one, nine of Russia's most prominent businessmen have been slain, as though modern Moscow were imitating the plot of Agatha Christie's novel "And Then There Were None."

This week, the business community buried 46-year-old banker Ivan K. Kivelidi, who was poisoned together with his secretary in what police believe was a contract killing.

Kivelidi was president of Rosbiznesbank and of the Russian Business Round Table, a prestigious group that represents about 270 new private businesses.

Associates said Kivelidi was neither especially wealthy nor a denizen of the high-risk, criminal-ridden world inhabited by some shady new financiers. But after a fellow bank president was found with his throat slit two weeks ago, Kivelidi had vowed publicly to rally the business community to fight back against organized crime.

Kivelidi was the ninth member of the Round Table to be slain in the past year, according to the group's vice president, Vladimir I. Shcherbakov.

"There has not been one conviction," Shcherbakov said. "The police are incapable of doing anything, or else they are in league with the criminals."

Kivelidi's murder has sent new shock waves though crime-jaded Russian society and reinforced the widely held opinion that the authorities are powerless to quell the explosion of organized crime.

Over the past three years, 46 business leaders have been killed and 25 injured, according to the Russian Banks Assn. How many of those victims were members of the Business Round Table was not clear.

"Once again the government declares a paper war on the criminal world," declared a sarcastic headline in the newspaper Izvestia. The article noted that Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin had responded to the latest slaying by ordering yet another report on organized crime.

Another newspaper, the Moscow Times, counted 17 gangland-style killings over a five-day period spanning the past week. That figure did not include ordinary domestic murders.

Muscovites have become relatively inured to shootouts between gangsters, bombs in offices and restaurants, and bankers who travel in bulletproof cars flanked by bodyguards. Not surprisingly, more than a third of them said in a recent survey that they believed that "real power in their city" was in the hands of what Russians call the mafiya .

The Round Table announced a $1-million reward for information leading to the capture of Kivelidi's killers or those who hired them. Shcherbakov also said the group would renew its efforts to establish "civilized forms of dispute resolution," including the introduction of arbitration courts and other legal reforms.

Shcherbakov also charged the government with widespread corruption, and threatened to publish a Round Table list of bribe-taking officials.

"We have such a list," Shcherbakov said. "Moreover, we know their prices."

The method of Kivelidi's murder was particularly sinister. After the businessman was rushed to the hospital in a coma Aug. 1, dying three days later, police sources said he appeared to have been poisoned by heavy metal salts, possibly cadmium. His secretary, Zara Ismailova, 35, was hospitalized with the same symptoms Aug. 2 and died the following day.

Shcherbakov said police had found a high level of radiation coming from Kivelidi's telephone, and said it now appears likely that the poisoner used a radioactive metal planted in the telephone receiver that both victims used. Visitors to Kivelidi's office, including three police officers sent there to investigate, were also taken ill.

Theories abounded on Kivelidi's slaying, but evidence was scanty. One newspaper suggested that cadmium had been used to warn him off involvement in the lucrative metals trading business, but Shcherbakov said Kivelidi was not engaged in metals exports and mainly ran his bank and a small political party.

According to another theory, the slayings were the work of the Felix Group, a mysterious syndicate supposedly made up of former KGB officials opposed to private enterprise.

Others speculated that hit men were making a preemptive strike on Kivelidi after his television promise to organize a private search for the killers of Yugorsky Bank President Oleg Y. Kantor, who was found dead beside his bodyguard at his country dacha two weeks ago.

Whatever the motive, Russians agreed that the slaying was meant to send a message of intimidation.

"Everybody is gathered around the coffin again. Who is next?" wrote Alexander Minkin in the popular daily Moskovsky Komsomolets. Minkin called the slaying "a showoff assassination," noting that the slayers chose a poison that could easily be traced to make a statement.

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