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Russians Say Official's Killing Probably Tied to Crime Probes

The slain central banker had investigated money laundering and other corruption schemes.

September 15, 2006|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — The slaying of a leading Russian central banker was probably related to his work, which involved shutting down banks engaged in illegal activities such as money laundering, authorities said Thursday.

Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov, who died early Thursday after being shot the night before, led an effort that revoked the licenses of 44 banks this year. Widely viewed at home and abroad as a particularly intelligent and honest figure among top Russian civil servants, his death was seen as a serious blow to corruption-fighting efforts here.

"I have no doubt that it was a contract murder connected with his professional activities," Mikhail Grishankov, deputy chairman of the security committee in the lower house of parliament, said in televised remarks. "Every year, dozens of billions of dollars pass through small banks to be cashed by criminal organizations and representatives of shadow businesses.

"He was trying his best to stop the crazy flood of black, dirty or gray money in our economy," Grishankov said.

At a Cabinet meeting Thursday, Prime Minister Mikhail Y. Fradkov called for a minute of silence to honor the 41-year-old central bank official.

Kozlov and his driver, Alexander Semyonov, were shot Wednesday evening while leaving a sports stadium where bank workers had played a soccer game. Semyonov was killed instantly, and Kozlov died after emergency surgery.

Police recovered the apparent murder weapons, a homemade pistol and a gas pistol modified to fire bullets, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. The investigation was focused on the owners of banks still facing the threat of having their licenses revoked, more than on already defunct banks, the news agency said.

Many banks have had their licenses revoked for money laundering or participating in schemes designed to minimize payment of import and value-added taxes, RIA Novosti said.

"Andrei Kozlov was at the forefront of efforts to reform and modernize Russia's banking sector, and he was among the brightest stars in the Russian government," Eugene K. Lawson, president of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, said in a statement released in Washington. "In addition to being the consummate professional, Andrei was our friend, and we will miss him."

For many Russians, the shooting brought back memories of the violent business struggles -- often involving contract killings -- that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as competitors vied for control of newly privatized state assets.

"Back in the 1990s we lived in chaos, with a promise that some order would emerge from it finally," said Irina Yasina, an economist at a Moscow think tank who is a former central bank spokeswoman. "Now there is a semblance of order, but under its thin film the most horrible things keep happening, and we are not even fully aware of the full scope. We are living as if on a volcano, running the risk of being destroyed by a lava eruption that can break through the thin crust under your feet at any time."

Russia has about 1,200 banking companies, including more than 1,000 small ones. Suspicion in Kozlov's killing generally focused on the smaller banks, which often serve the narrow interests of their owners.

Anatoly B. Chubais, a key government reformer in the 1990s who now heads the country's electrical power grid and who was the target of an assassination attempt last year, said in televised remarks that Kozlov's slaying constituted "a challenge to the state."

"The response to it should be extremely tough, extremely quick and absolutely adequate," Chubais said.

Yasina, who knew Kozlov, said he was "an honest and very sincere man."

"He was an ideal official. He was one of the best," she said. "Unfortunately, in our country the best die first."

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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