THE DEATH OF PAUL KHLEBNIKOV, ENEMY OF THE OLIGARCHS

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“Killed twice”: that is how the Russian press is describing Paul Khlebnikov, chief editor of the Russian-language edition of Forbes magazine, who was murdered in Moscow last Friday.

The circumstances of the American journalist’s death are no less shocking than the murder itself, obviously a contract killing.

That which the gunman’s bullets failed to accomplish immediately was completed by Moscow’s slow ambulance service. As is often the case, the ambulance turned out to lack even a simple oxygen pack. The mobile intensive care unit that arrived after the ambulance didn’t have one either. And there was also the overloaded elevator at the 20th hospital, which got stuck between floors.

The elevator was bound to break down, says the Izvestia newspaper: it is only intended to carry five people, but “everyone in the corridor” squeezed into it along with the patient: five doctors, two orderlies, and for some reason two police officers as well. Only Mikhail Fishman, the Newsweek journalist who had ridden in the ambulance with Khlebnikov, was not allowed into the elevator. He attempted to open the doors of the elevator when it turned out that neither an elevator attendant nor a mechanic was immediately available. For lack of any better tools (the hospital’s fire attendants, nearby and with hooks and shovels at their disposal, refused to help) Fishman used a chair. When the elevator attendant and the mechanic arrived, and the door was finally opened, it turned out to be too late to operate.

Meanwhile, although doctors at the 20th hospital claimed that “he had eight bullet wounds, including one in the head,” Khlebnikov actually had four wounds – and none of them hit any vital organs, says Izvestia.

The Novye Izvestia newspaper quotes Alexander Saversky, president of the Patients’ Defense League (who knew Moscow had one of those?): “The hospital’s chief surgeon will answer for the fact that a seriously wounded man was carried into the elevator and a corpse was carried out.” However, anyone who is familiar with Russian health care is bound to doubt this statement: it won’t come as any surprise if the guilty party is found to be the elevator attendant, for example. Or the orderlies – why did they get into the elevator when there were already five doctors and two police officers in there? They were perfectly capable of using the stairs to try to catch up with the elevator, in order to wheel the trolley out of it (that’s not a police officer’s job, after all).

The problem for all those who were “present, but not to blame” is only that Paul Khlebnikov was a citizen of the United States, so there is some hope that the circumstances of his death will be more thoroughly investigated than usual – or rather, that there will be any investigation at all.

Olga Romanova, an observer with the Vedomosti newspaper, even considers that those who paid for the killing of the American journalist “are certainly doomed now.”

Forbes “is not some obscure magazine like ‘Svetlyi Put’ – it is an empire, and a substantial one,” says Romanova. “They will carry out an investigation of their own, and virtually nothing can prevent them from publishing the results.”

Moreover, there is another side to this issue, says Romanova: “The number of times that Russian presidents have enquired about progress on the Vlad Listiev murder investigation can be counted on one’s fingers. American presidents are sure to be more persistent – not because they are more conscientious, but because they have voters, who are also tax-payers, and who want this information.”

On the whole, with this two-act drama (first act outside the magazine’s office, second act at the 20th hospital), Russia has once again confirmed to the entire world its reputation as “the Wild West of the East.”

The Western papers have already spoken out on this topic, very openly. The Wall Street Journal (quoted in Nezavisimaya Gazeta) said: “An indicator of a nation’s maturity is that business disputes are settled by lawyers, not by bullets. The murder of the Forbes Russia editor shows that Russia is still in its adolescence.”

Oberoesterreichische Nachrichten (Austria): It could hardly be believed that the first contract murder of a foreign journalist in Russia will be investigated: at least 12 journalists who conducted their own investigations were murdered in Russia, primarily in the provinces, over the past four years. None of the murders have been solved.”

The Western press has no doubts about the motives for the murder. The Financial Times: “Previous contract killings of journalists were often linked to the subjects of their articles – for instance dedicated to army corruption, a financial conflict related to control of their publications or advertising revenues. Forbes has incurred resentment of the shadow business elite of Russia by publishing a list of Russia’s Top 100 richest people, who control 25% of Russia’s GDP.”

“Russia is the only country where the publication of such a ranking could be mentioned among the probable motives for murder, alongside the investigations,” Ella Paneyakh says in Vedomosti.

Response to the ranking, which had actually been “the authorized version of Paul,” who had during his work in Russia assembled “a huge database on big business,” a Forbes employee told Kommersant, proved to be surprisingly tempestuous.

“Almost all the people on the ranking rushed to deny that they are rich. They demanded that editors of the issue apologize, because in reality ‘we are not the owners of these assets.'”

“It was as if Forbes had accused them of a major crime,” recalls Vedomosti. However, notes the author, the reaction “was not paradoxical,” given that the person whose name was at the top of the list is currently in prison.

Given below is what Khlebnikov said regarding the trustworthiness of data about those on Top 100 ranking in one of his latest interviews (published by Gazeta): “I wish to think they are trustworthy… If information is assembled by bits, one can reach quite clear assessments of the people’s fortune and the value of companies.”

To confirm this, Khlebnikov recalled his interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky of 1994: “He was saying then he only had his salary and a car and no share in Menatep. This proved to be a wonderful quote.”

Khlebnikov was opposed to the oligarchs, says Russkii Kurier.

He gained fame as a journalist in 1996, by alleging in one of his articles that Boris Berezovsky, then secretary of the Security Council, was engaged in criminal forms of business activity. Khlebnikov went on to write books with characteristic titles: “Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia.”

An article published by The Moscow Times in March 2001 (Vedomosti newspaper reprinted it on Monday) gives an idea of the author’s position. Khlebnikov wrote about the oligarchs: “For most of the Yeltsin era they were allowed to dictate government policy, freely embezzle state property, and transfer profits abroad. This all resulted in economic collapse, an insolvent government, and an impoverished population. In any normal society, these people would be behind bars.”

It could be easily noted that given current relations between business and government in Russia, this statement was truly prophetic.

In general, Khlebnikov has never concealed his sympathies for actions of the authorities: “Putin’s assault on the oligarchs, no matter how rude and clumsy it might seem, is worthy of applause. He calls it the ‘dictatorship of law.’ Is he violating democracy?”

It should be kept in mind that the matter concerns Gusinsky and Berezovsky, while the story of YUKOS happened much later.

Meanwhile, says Russkii Kurier, the new issue of Forbes Russia, which is yet to come out, was due to include an article about why “workers at enterprises controlled by Oleg Deripaska don’t like Deripaska.”

And Khlebnikov himself – according to his friend Mark Franchetti, a journalist with the Sunday Times, had only been working on one article recently: about relations between foreign and Russian managers at the TNK-BP company, where “Viktor Vekselberg and Mikhail Fridman are key oligarchs.”

The author had plenty of hazardous moments in his work – just refer to the stir which occurred after Elena Baturina, wife of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, was included into the renowned Forbes ranking.

The public was astonished to learn that has a fortune of over $1 billion. “The masters of Moscow could hardly have liked to see something that had only been rumored actually published in a magazine.”

Trying to remain just, the newspaper specifies that “the contract murder could also have been ordered by someone seeking to compromise Luzhkov himself.” Back in 1996, there were attempts to implicate Luzhkov in the murder of another American – Paul Tatum, owner of the Radisson-Slavianskaya Hotel. But until there is evidence of the contrary, all such speculations can only be considered as attempts to blacken the name of the Moscow mayor.

The main danger is that murder of Paul Khlebnikov could be used “as a bridgehead for a new attack on representatives of big business in Russia,” says Semyon Novoprudsky in Vremya Novostei.

The logic of the investigators will be quite correct – “if the magazine mainly covers big business, and this event looks like a contract killing, it is very likely that big business hired the hitmen.” Thus, the murder of an American journalist could be a internal Russian political provocation.

Meanwhile, in another of his interviews, this time for Izvestia, seven hours before his death (as the newspaper says) Khlebnikov described the anti-oligarchic policy of the present-day master of the Kremlin with more criticism.

Not much has happened in Russia since the 1990’s: “Like before, just a few men control a substantial part of economy. Like before, these men wield influence with the state policy.”

Chief editor of Forbes Russia offers to compare Sibneft and YUKOS. “Sibneft is much worse than YUKOS in all formal and informal charges pressed against YUKOS – tax debts, lack of patriotism, political interests… And yet, Sibneft is fine and dandy, its owners have patrons in the Kremlin, while YUKOS is being taken apart.”

In the opinion of the “enemy of the oligarchs” (as defined by Russkii Kurier), the reason is that one of the oligarchs is “the presidential buddy” and the second “is an independent man.”

Khlebnikov doesn’t rule out that the prosecutor’s office was quite within its rights to press charges against YUKOS and against Khodorkovsky personally: “Why is the law applied so stiffly against one oligarch and is not applied at all against another, the one who broke the law and went against public morale in an even worse manner?”

The Russian journalists are for long been concerned about Roman Abramovich’s “floodability.”

“How this person manages to avoid the blow aimed against his fellow-oligarchs again and again? It seems like he wears amulets protecting from evil eye or was born under a lucky star,” asks Novaya Gazeta.

However, the newspaper is sure that the oligarch’s immunity for Matrosskaya Tishina is explained by more realistic causes.

According to Novaya Gazeta, Abramovich’s public biography is divided into two large periods – “before and after Putin.” Until summer 1999 Abramovich preferred “not to be an eyesore,” giving this opportunity to Berezovsky. This is why he was calmly doing his business, wasting no time and resources on the political games. The result was encouraging: after Sibneft was founded, Abramovich proved to have a lion’s share of its shares – by two times as much as owned by Berezovsky.

This is when most interesting started: “While Berezovsky was enthusiastically wasting money on political projects, Abramovich was earning it, multiplying the “Family’s” income, to supervise which he was set.”

On an equal footing with Deripaska, Abramovich founded Rusal holding, which took control over 70% of aluminum-making industry in Russia in defiance of all anti-monopoly regulations. Together with the above partner Abramovich formed Ruspromavto concern, which unified GAZ and several smaller plants.

What’s noteworthy, notes Novaya Gazeta, having created such an empire Abramovich managed to avoid quarreling to any of his fellow-oligarchs: “This happened during the era of wars for redistribution of property. This was likely the time when he formed his credo: “Do not quarrel with the strong now.”

Besides, says the newspaper, another nuance is significant: Roman Abramovich was interested in all kinds of the business but for media business.

The fates of disgraced Berezovsky and Gusinsky soon manifested the wisdom of this standing.

Very likely, Roman Abramovich would prefer staying in the shadow (a joke popular earlier is given: everybody knows Abramovich, but nobody has seen him), but the fate decided differently. “The equidistance of oligarchs – the redistribution of property – required an intermediary, able to purchase the property from old owners and accurately passed to the new ones. This is how Abramovich proved to be of service to the authorities on mutually beneficial terms.

Return of ORT’s shares to the state proved to be the trial balloon. Berezovsky, who was about to emigrate, sold his 49% stake to Abramovich for $150 million to Sverbank, i.e. the state.

This was when the attitude of the new Kremlin’s master towards Abramovich was altered. Sibneft was no more tormented with inspections, while being Chukotka governor already Abramovich managed to save considerable amounts for Sibneft as a result of tax optimization thanks to the internal offshore. The State Auditing Losses couldn’t help it: “To all appearances, he received the Chukotka patrimony with a blessing from above.”

It should be noted that the governor doesn’t intend to run for the second term, since no internal off-shores exist in Russia anymore from 2003.

According to Novaya Gazeta, Abramovich’s role in the case of YUKOS is more curious. It should be reminded that nearly a few days after Platon Lebedev was arrested, Abramovich announced purchasing GC Chelsea. In the opinion of the newspaper, this proves “his tranquil certainty of his immunity;” all grounds are available for that.

Soon after Khodorkovsky’s arrest Sibneft announced cessation of the merger with YUKOS. This meant a necessity of recovering $3 billion paid for the stock already and, probably, involve the International Arbitration Court into the resolution of this conflict. However, the power was dissatisfied with similar actions and Abramovich immediately refused this option. And, he benefited again.

“Now that YUKOS shareholders are driven into a corner they are ready to return Sibneft to Abramovich almost gratis or sell it to the man which the state points to, for instance Gazprom. This would factually mean a transaction of passing Sibneft to Gazprom, as a result of which Abramovich earns quite big smart money from YUKOS without being formally involved in it,” says the newspaper.

Besides, by this step the former owner of Sibneft will reliably secure himself against reiterating the fate of Khodorkovsky, stresses Novaya Gazeta.

Thus, concludes the author, the secret of Abramovich’s floodability is not that simple and extraordinary: “In all the major conflicts between business and government, he plays the role of intermediary, turning in his former partners and helping the authorities to make the redistribution of property look more or less civilized.”

At the same time, he remains invulnerable: according to rumor, he has very little property left in Russia, so for Abramovich emigration is only a matter of the time required to fly from Moscow to London.

“This is why Abramovich has been boldly and demonstratively purchasing football clubs, mansions and yachts, while his less quick-witted colleagues are pushing one another in queues for the place in the vertical of the new power.”

As reported by the press, the efforts of these poor fellows are mainly unsuccessful of late.

For instance, according to Argumenty i Fakty weekly, the long-awaited meeting of businessmen with the president ended with a total confusion: when the intimidated entrepreneurs attended the Kremlin the Taxes and Duties Ministry announced that the amount of penalty levied on YUKOS was doubled.

Vyscheslav Kostikov, an observer with Argumenty i Fakty provided the following comments: “Even if Putin wasn’t aware of this ‘surprise,’ this symbolic incident only stresses the omissions in relations between business and government.”

Moreover, says the author, the business and the power cannot negotiate by definition: “although they think the same language, they think count differently.”

According to Argumenty i Fakty, the oligarchs are now ready to discuss the matter concerning the amount of smart money sufficient for the people to agree to shut their eyes to the predatory privatization and the power would instead protect them from the growing dislike of the population. However, they are unlikely to succeed: “The absence of internal investment, the continuing capital flight, tax evasion evidence that neither the business itself, nor its ideologists have learned anything. The country is aimed to move forward, while the business wants “everything to stay as under grandfather Yeltsin.”

Meanwhile, not everybody are reportedly said to share Kostikov’s sternness towards the oligarсhs.

According to the VTsIOM polling agency’s latest findings, published by Vremya Novostei, 42% of young Russian citizens aged 18 to 24 say the oligarchs are role models for them.

VTsIOM experts are saying that contrary to assurances of politicians, big business is the “personification of success in Russia” nowadays.

Since everything has changed rapidly in Russia, meteoric success is desirable: the example of parents who survived several “microrevolutions” over the past few years shows that otherwise they might have no time.

It should be noted that other versions, but for a stoker with beliefs or an oligarch who had gained a multi-billion fortune, are not considered at all.

However, there are also the pop stars, who even outscored the oligarchs on the scale of nationwide love – 53% of young people want to live like they do!

At any rate, the efforts by Russian authorities to shape a negative image of the oligarchs are in vain, concludes Vremya Novostei.

Russian politicians are placed at the bottom of the scale of preferences: at most 4% of respondents denied that they are exemplary.

The newspaper gives comments from VTsIOM director Alexander Konovalov: “The oligarchs see no fame; the fame finds them. A young person perceives an oligarch as a person, who wanted to make money and make money. A politician is a person, who wants to do the same but is claiming a concern for nation’s welfare.”

In the opinion of Konovalov, the harassment of oligarchs by the authorities may only improve the standing of the oligarchs, since “the persecuted” have always viewed with sympathy in Russia.

As it turned the president’s popularity rating is in danger. For the first time over Putin’s rule the scientists have for the first time fixed lessening of the corresponding figure below 50%.

However, says Gazeta, these are only the findings from the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) alone. Other polling agencies say the president’s rating is still above 70%.

The FOM hastened to declare its own findings to be “not revealing.” Gazeta was assured by the analytical department of the FOM that “a falling trend for the president’s rating is not discernible so far.” We need to wait a couple of months.

However, there are indirect signs that our society has unfavorable tint in its attitude for the regime.

According to Novaya Gazeta, having asked “Which public institutions do you trust?” the ROMIR Monitoring agency received a curious reply: only 38% of respondents proved to have trust, and 37% more – trust nobody.

The rest of the public institutions have been ignored: 5% trust the government, 2% trust the Duma, Federation Council, political parties. As a result, the media are trusted by 7%, although the Kremlin political consultants have done their best to discredit the media.

It is impossible to disregard the fact that the figure of 7% almost matches opinion poll indications of the number of democratically-minded Russian citizens. However, this could be purely a coincidence.

At any rate, Paul Khlebnikov and his colleagues weren’t fruitlessly breaking a wonderful rule, formulated for Russian journalists two centuries ago: “Neither censure, nor approve! The government doesn’t need the opinions of trash like you!”

However, our society is likely to still need assessments from journalists, no matter how hard it is to believe that now.

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