Head of Juice Makers' Union Killed

The head of the Russian Juice Producers Union was beaten to death on the grounds of his Moscow region home as he was walking his dog over the weekend, law enforcement officials said.

Valery Ostapets, 61, was attacked and killed by unidentified assailants on Saturday evening on his property in the elite village of Krekshino, 25 kilometers southwest of Moscow, Yulia Zhukova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow region branch of the Investigative Committee said Monday.

It was unclear whether the attack was connected to Ostapets' work as the head of the union, whose members include several of the country's largest juice and soft drink producers, including industry leaders Lebedyansky, Wimm-Bill-Dann and Nidan Soki. Zhukova declined to give further details about the attack, citing the ongoing murder investigation.

Citing an unidentified law enforcement official, RIA-Novosti reported that Ostapets was beaten to death by two men wearing ski masks and wielding baseball bats as he was walking his dog.

"The men stood beating the businessman with baseball bats and fled when they heard his wife screaming," the source said, adding that his wife was unharmed in the attack.

A woman who answered the phone Monday at the Russian Juice Producers Union, which Ostapets had headed since 1999, said no one was available to comment on the deadly attack.

Wimm-Bill-Dann spokesman Anton Saraikin declined to comment on the attack, officials from Nidan Soki and Lebedyansky could not be reached for comment Monday.

Total soft drink sales in Russia reached $3.5 billion last year, up 17 percent from 2006, said Mikhail Krasnoperov, a consumer goods analyst at Troika Dialog. In a 2007 report, Troika Dialog predicted that Russia would become Europe's largest market for soft drinks this year.

The U.S. soft drink and snack giant PepsiCo announced last month that it would pay $1.4 billion to acquire a 75.53 percent stake in Lebedyansky, the country's largest juice manufacturer known for its Ya, Tonus and Fruktovy Sad brands. Lebedyansky reported an annual revenue of $800 million in 2007 from its juice business.

Tatiana Smetnova, a spokeswoman for PepsiCo and Pepsi Bottling Group in

Russia, declined to comment on Ostapets' murder but expressed confidence that authorities would "properly investigate" the crime.

The domestic juice industry has been linked in the past to criminal groups. Ahead of Wimm-Bill-Dann's 2002 debut on the New York Stock Exchange, the company disclosed that its main shareholder, Gavriil Yushvayev, had been convicted of a "violent crime" as a teen. It also acknowledged that its shareholders and directors were involved with the Trinity holding, which Russian media had linked to organized crime.