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Killing of Journalist Stirs Coverage of Suspected Graft

Two men with links to republic of Kalmykia's leader are being held in slaying. The editor had been investigating alleged political corruption.

June 19, 1998|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Two weeks ago, the editor of the main opposition newspaper in Russia's Kalmykia republic went to meet a source who had promised to give her documents detailing corruption in the government.

The editor, Larisa Yudina, never returned from the meeting. Her body was found the next day on the outskirts of Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, with multiple stab wounds and a fractured skull.

Since then, the killing of the 53-year-old grandmother has accomplished what her small newspaper could never do: focus national attention on the dealings of Kalmykia's flamboyant multimillionaire president, Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov.

Federal officials quickly concluded that Yudina's killing was politically motivated and took over the investigation from the regional authorities. Russian Interior Minister Sergei V. Stepashin branded the slaying a "political contract killing," and President Boris N. Yeltsin declared that the local police could "not be trusted."

This week, authorities announced that two men who had held posts under Ilyumzhinov--one of them his envoy to the neighboring Volgograd region--had confessed to killing the crusading journalist and dumping her body in a pond. After they confessed, a third man also was arrested in the case.

"Larisa's death is yet another reminder to all of us that we live in a preserve of barbarism where medieval, arbitrary rule reigns supreme," her husband, teacher Gennady Yudin, told The Times.

Ilyumzhinov has denied any connection to the killing and suggested it could have been prompted by Yudina's business activities or personal debts. And in a nationally televised interview before the suspects' reported confessions, he said he too had become a victim of the crime.

"My assessment of the case is that it is a political provocation against the republic, against the people that live here, against me personally, and aimed at disrupting peace and stability," he asserted.

Adding to the political flavor of the case, the 36-year-old Ilyumzhinov used his TV appearance to announce his long-shot candidacy for the presidency of Russia in 2000.

Kalmykia, an autonomous province in southern Russia, is Europe's only Buddhist republic. On the northwest coast of the Caspian Sea, not far from the troubled Caucasus region, Kalmykia has more sheep than people and remains impoverished 6 1/2 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ilyumzhinov, who likes to call himself a "democratic khan," was first elected in 1993, then ran unopposed in 1995 and won a seven-year term. Despite Kalmykia's lack of natural resources, he promised voters that the republic would become a "second Kuwait" and that every shepherd would have a cell phone.

His main economic program has been to give Kalmykia the status of an "offshore" business haven, which grants local tax-free status to companies located elsewhere in Russia. But the major beneficiaries appear to have been himself and his cronies. Ilyumzhinov reportedly owns six Rolls-Royces and devotes his energies to promoting Kalmykia as a world center for chess tournaments.

Yudina is one of dozens of journalists slain in the line of duty since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a similar case in 1994, reporter Dmitri Kholodov was killed when he opened a briefcase he thought contained incriminating documents. Instead, it contained a bomb.

Yudina, a member of Russia's liberal Yabloko movement, was one of Ilyumzhinov's most outspoken critics. He had tried to shut down her paper, Sovetskaya Kalmykia Sevodnya, and she had been forced to publish it in Volgograd and truck it to Kalmykia.

Among her frequent targets was the tax oasis. In a television interview shortly before her death, she cited it as an example of corruption in the republic. Companies pay a fee to register as Kalmykian enterprises, but the money goes directly to a fund controlled by Ilyumzhinov, she charged.

In addition, businesses operating in Kalmykia are forced to donate to Ilyumzhinov's "charity fund," she alleged, saying, "If one refuses today, tomorrow he will find tax collectors and tax police knocking on his door, and the company will simply be closed down."

When the killers arranged to meet her June 6, it was the promise of information about tax improprieties that lured Yudina to her death, her husband said.

"It was a perfectly deadly trap," he said. "Those who set the appointment with her knew exactly what documents she was looking for. She went to meet her killers mesmerized by the thought of the files she was about to get."

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