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Russian Governor Is Gunned Down in Bold Daylight Attack

Killer ambushes head of gold-rich region in Far East as he is walking to his office in Moscow. Officials say mobsters may be behind slaying.

October 19, 2002|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW -- In one of the most brazen assassinations in Russia in recent years, a man armed with a silenced pistol killed the governor of a gold-rich Far East region Friday on one of Moscow's busiest streets.

Authorities said the attack was probably a contract killing and suggested that the victim had run afoul of one of the country's organized crime clans. They acknowledged that they had no immediate suspects.

Valentin Tsvetkov, the 54-year-old head of the regional government of Magadan, was shot in the back of the head shortly after 9 a.m. while on his way into his region's Moscow office on Novy Arbat, a broad skyscraper-lined street constructed in the 1960s as a showpiece of Soviet modernity.

The killing was the latest in a long series of gangland-style shootings of public servants and business leaders in the decade since the end of the Soviet Union. Although the first of a governor, it followed by less than two months the assassination of a Liberal Russia party member of the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, in a suburban Moscow park.

"A governor, just like any ordinary Russian, has no protection from arbitrary criminals," Eduard Rossel, the governor of Sverdlovsk, told a Russian news agency.

Tsvetkov was gunned down as he walked toward his office with his wife at his side. The gunman, who witnesses said wore a stocking cap and had been hiding behind a sidewalk billboard, fired several shots and then fled in a waiting Zhiguli, a small Russian-made sedan. He discarded his Makarov pistol at the scene. The Zhiguli was found on a nearby side street, and police said the gunman probably fled in a second car.

There were crowds of people on the sidewalk when the shooting occurred, and by late afternoon police were circulating a sketch of the assailant based on witness descriptions.

President Vladimir V. Putin, whose motorcade to the Kremlin daily passes by the site of the slaying, condemned it as a "crime against the state" and ordered the country's top two law-enforcement officials, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov and Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, to take charge of the investigation. Putin also called Tsvetkov's wife, Lyudmila, to offer his condolences.

"This crime must be solved," Ustinov told reporters. Gryzlov said a team of investigators would be sent to Magadan today. "We believe the roots of the crime should be sought there," he said.

The governor had been in Moscow for two weeks and had been using the office on Novy Arbat every day, said Vladimir Gordiyenko, chief criminal investigator for Moscow.

"The crime is connected with the economic activities of the region," said Gordiyenko, adding that the governor had been in conflict with some local business leaders.

Magadan, a Pacific port about 3,700 miles east of Moscow, produces roughly a quarter of Russia's annual gold output. As governor, Tsvetkov personally oversaw the awarding of licenses and concessions for companies in the gold, fishing and oil industries.

"Magadan means fish and gold," Sergei Mironov, chairman of the Federation Council, parliament's upper house, said on state television. "Quite recently, the governor made a correct decision to build a gold processing facility.

"What is more, he did all he could to make sure that gold deposits would be put to use for the benefit of Magadan residents. It looks as though someone didn't like that at all."

A former member of the Duma, Tsvetkov was elected governor in 1996 and reelected in 2000.

"Criminals no longer are afraid of anything. They know they will never be caught," said retired Police Maj. Gen. Vladimir Ovchinsky, the former head of Interpol in Russia.

"They know the Interior Ministry anti-organized-crime forces are no longer a serious match for them," Ovchinsky said. He blamed what he said were repeated "purges" of the country's anti-organized-crime units that led to the departure of experienced investigators. He also accused state television of glorifying organized-crime characters in a recent series.

At least seven lawmakers and a number of deputy governors have died violently in post-Communist Russia. The most recent was Duma member Vladimir Golovlyov, who was shot Aug. 21 while walking his dog outside Moscow.

Golovlyov was a member of Liberal Russia, which is critical of Putin. But the speculation after his unsolved death has been that it had something to do with his business activities. Perhaps the best-known unsolved killing of a politician was that of Galina V. Starovoitova, a liberal lawmaker and presidential advisor from St. Petersburg who was killed Nov. 20, 1998.

Despite the lack of arrests, authorities say they are making progress fighting contract killings.

"Generally, each year we have been solving more and more of these cases," said Natalia Vishnyakova, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor general's office.

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Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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