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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Political Slayings Smell of Money

Americans like to call their politics a blood sport. They should come to Moscow, where, to a worrisome degree, that is more than just a metaphor.

If assassins do not prey on members of parliament every day -- once or twice a year seems more the norm -- sudden death is nevertheless a grim fact of life for elected officials and political appointees.

For Vladimir Golovlyov, a member of parliament, last Wednesday began in typical fashion. He rose early, dressed and left his fashionable northwest Moscow apartment to walk his dog.

In a curious way, the end was typical, too. About 8 a.m., in a narrow strip of woods along his daily route, someone pumped two bullets from a foreign-made pistol into the back of Golovlyov's head. He died instantly.

A day earlier, hitmen gunned down the deputy chief of the Moscow Railways. In June, a deputy mayor survived his second assassination attempt in 18 months, and a gunman killed the head of the Podolsk district, just outside Moscow. In March, the head of the Ozyory district in the Moscow region died along with his wife in an explosion that has variously been attributed to a car bomb and a rocket-launched grenade.

Then there are the deaths in the boondocks: This month alone, hitmen dispatched the deputy governor of the Smolensk region and the deputy mayor of Novosibirsk, who was the second deputy mayor from that Siberian city to be gunned down in 11 months.

On Monday, a member of the Novosibirsk city council was shot dead.

Politics is the thread that runs through the attacks and killings, but knowledgeable outsiders say it is rarely the motive.

"There are practically no political murders here," said Larisa Kislinskaya, a writer for the newspaper Sovershenno Sekretno, or Top Secret, whom some call Moscow's best crime reporter.

Rather, the usual reason is money. And the perpetrators are believed to be mostly organized-crime figures or business tycoons whose victims either thwarted their criminal plans or were in cahoots with them.

That they do not hesitate to kill politicians -- and that remarkably few political assassins are ever caught -- is testament to both the frailty of Russia's justice system and the depth of official corruption.

"From my experience, these crimes are being solved only when somebody comes out in the open with an open accusation," said Dmitry Volkov, who was an investigative reporter for the now-defunct Moscow daily Vremya Novostei. "The sad fact is that such business practices cannot be uprooted in a year or two, or three."

Indeed, they have not been uprooted in a decade of independence, though some statistics suggest that the overall pace of contract murders has more than halved since their peak in the mid-1990s, when as many as 400 hits occurred each year.

Most victims are thugs or businessmen.

But at least nine members of parliament have been murdered since Russia became independent in 1991, and a number of others have been injured or escaped hits unscathed.

During the two-year session of the State Duma that ended in 1999, a dozen parliamentary aides were murdered.

Most were later found to have had criminal ties.

And in Moscow, assassins have trained guns, bombs and even vials of acid on a bewildering array of officeholders, some of whose duties might seem as dull as a notary's job: the Moscow education administrator; the head of the national sports foundation; two deputy mayors; a covey of district administrators and -- yes -- the chief of Russian notaries, Anatoly Tikhenko, shot dead in his apartment doorway almost 18 months ago.

His case is instructive. In Russia, where a leviathan bureaucracy demands an official seal on practically everything short of a sneeze, it turns out that the notary's job is both lucrative and powerful. Tikhenko campaigned to purge the notary rolls of criminal elements and to reform notary regulations, two passions that apparently were his undoing.

Moscow's education tsar, who survived a 1997 hit, is said to have run afoul of shady figures who wanted a chunk of the city's textbook market.

The deputy mayor who was attacked for the second time in June, Iosif Ordzhonikidze, supervises the city's hotel and casino business, among others. Assassins nearly killed him in December 2000; this time, guards killed one of his assassins, who was identified as a cousin of a prominent hotelier. The police say their inquiry has been stymied by a lack of cooperation.

Finally, there is Golovlyov, a 45-year-old, three-term Duma deputy from Chelyabinsk, who is said to have escaped a similar attack last spring thanks to his dog.

Allies have been quick to label his death a political murder.

There is political motive aplenty: The Liberal Party, which he helped found, is the brainchild of Boris Berezovsky.

But Kislinskaya, the crime reporter, says the likely reason for the killing lies in Chelyabinsk, where Golovlyov supervised the messy and corrupt business of privatizing state property in the early 1990s.

Lilia Shevtsova, a potent analyst of regional politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that Golovlyov had grown from a shadowy manipulator into an ardent advocate of liberal democracy. Many of Russia's nouveau riche, including Berezovsky, have followed the same route.

She called his death "the perfect example of the ambiguity of Russian politics."

"Russian politicians and personalities cannot be put into neat categories, black or white," she said. "Russia is operating in the gray zone. The most staunch and energetic defenders of democracy have this kind of shadowy past."

Which suggests that reformers and Russian democracy will be trailed by hitmen for at least some years to come.

"Money has a big trail behind it," said Volkov, the journalist. "And I think that before we truly call ourselves civilized, there will be a lot more contract killings and attempts on the lives of officials."

 State Duma Deputy Magomed Tekeyev was beaten in an attack in the southern republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia late Monday that left his aide dead, Interfax reported, citing prosecutors.

Tekeyev and his aide, Alim Sarov, were riding in a car near the village of Rimgorskoye when the vehicle was blocked by another car, which had no license plates.

Three armed men jumped out of the car, shot Sarov and beat the deputy with metal rods, the republic's prosecutor's office told Interfax.

The assailants have not been identified.

It was the second attack in less than two years on Tekeyev, who is a member of the Fatherland-All Russia faction.

In October 2000, Tekeyev suffered head injuries when unknown assailants attacked him in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia capital, Cherkessk, ahead of local parliamentary elections.