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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hit Men Make a Killing in Hard Times

Russia's economic woes have put the cut-throat back into competition, with the first five months of 1999 seeing the incidence of contract killings double, Interior Ministry officials said Thursday.

Between January and May this year, 567 businessmen were slain on the orders of their competitors, compared to 232 such killings over the same period last year and 599 contract killings for the whole of 1998, according to police figures.

The figures also show contract "hits" are most common in the oil and gas, metals and banking sectors, said Akhmed Khairov, deputy head of the Interior Ministry's major crimes section.

He hinted the boom in contract killings might be linked to a fresh battle for the redistribution of wealth sparked by last year's banking sector collapse and the growth in profitability experienced by export industries with a weaker ruble.

Contract killings were relatively rare in the first years after the 1991 Soviet collapse, Khairov said.

"Now hundreds of them are committed,'' he said. "Explosives, automatic rifles, grenade launchers are used in contract killings. These crimes are thoroughly planned, the chain from the customer to the killer having up to 10 links.''

Even though contract killings often don't come cheap - professional sniper killers can cost $100,000 - many hit men see only a small fraction of the fee, thanks to all those links in the chain, Khairov said.

"In one of the recent crimes investigated by the ministry, the first middleman received $25,000 while the killer himself got only $2,000," he added.

Last year the Interior Ministry successfully investigated 152 contract killings, about a quarter of the total registered slayings.

Very often killers are recruited among former officials of the secret police or army veterans, especially those who fought in the Afghan War.

Their high prices guarantee the contract will be fulfilled no matter what obstacles arise.

Contract killings now mostly hit mid-level business figures. Neither rich high fliers nor major foreign businessmen have been among the recent victims of murderers for hire.

The most sensational hits of the past two years or so have been more closely connected to the world of politics.

Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova was gunned down last year in St. Petersburg. Police have yet to solve that killing, which shocked the nation.

Some businessmen have attributed the lack of killings among the business elite in recent years to controversial tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Leading business figures,defending the controversial oligarch in a Kommersant article last year, said Berezovsky had urged Russia's elite to refrain from using contract killings to solve their differences.

Foreigners have rarely been targeted by such crimes.

Moscow's expatriate community was stunned when U.S. businessman Paul Tatum was shot dead in November 1996. He was fighting a long-running battle over the ownership of Radisson Slavjanskaya Hotel at the time of his killing, which has also never been solved.

Tatum's death was the last such incident involving a major foreign business figure.

Once business figures decide a rival needs to be eliminated in such a way, they are very persistent, Khairov said.

"There is no way you can prevent a murder once criminal authorities get an order from their clientele," Khairov said at a round table on business and murder held Thursday.

If the first murder attempt fails, killers will try a second time, a third time or even more until the victim finally falls into their trap.

"A killer will always work off his money," Khairov said.

However, private security agencies who also attended Thursday's round table disagreed with the Interior Ministry on this point, saying murders can be prevented.

"We very often identify the customer who hires the killers," said Igor Goloshchapov, head of a self-regulating group that unites several security agencies and calls itself The League.

"We then try to contact the customer and warn him that we can report on him to the police," Goloshchapov said.

Usually customers prefer to withdraw their order once they realize they have been identified and that retaliatory measures could follow, Goloshchapov said.

The League's methods appalled Khairov, who said such practices are illegal.

"If circumstances related to the organization of a crime become known to individuals or to the public, a report should be filed with the police," Khairov said.