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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

VTB Banker's Body Found Bound in Pool

Authorities opened a murder investigation Friday into the death of a senior executive at state-run bank VTB, who was found dead with his legs bound, in a swimming pool at his luxury dacha outside Moscow.

The body of Oleg Zhukovsky, a VTB managing director who handled accounts in the notoriously murky timber industry, was discovered Thursday in the pool at his dacha in the Odintsovo district of the Moscow region, Oleg Krasnoshchyokov, a duty officer with the Odintsovo police department, said Friday. Zhukovsky's arms and legs had been tied up and a plastic bag was tied around his head, Krasnoshchyokov said.

Although the body was found with the arms free, loose ropes around the wrists indicated that Zhukovsky's hands had earlier been tied together and to his ankles, sources involved in the investigation said, Kommersant reported Saturday.

The time of the death and the motive for Zhukovsky's murder remained unclear. The Moscow region branch of the Investigative Committee has opened a murder investigation and formed a special team to handle the case, the committee said in a statement Friday.

"We have conducted a search of the crime scene, performed forensic and other examinations, and have called for other necessary investigative actions and procedures," the Investigative Committee, a semi-autonomous agency that operates under the auspices of the Prosecutor General's Office, said in the statement.

No other details were given, and committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko declined to comment further.

But citing an unidentified law enforcement source, Kommersant reported Friday that a suicide note was found near Zhukovsky's body in what might have been a sloppy attempt at a cover-up.

The suicide note included the phrase, "I am very tired of life," and ended with a plea not to blame anybody for his death, Kommersant said. The fact that Zhukovsky was tied up and found at the bottom of the pool made suicide an unlikely version of events, the source told the newspaper Friday.

"He's not Harry Houdini," the source said, adding that authorities believed the perpetrators broke into the dacha and forced Zhukovsky to write the note. The attackers proceeded to cover Zhukovsky's head with a plastic bag and torture him, the source said. The banker might have died of a heart attack at some point, the source said.

The note was being examined by handwriting experts, RIA-Novosti reported.

VTB, headed by Andrei Kostin, is the country's second-largest bank, after Sberbank. Earlier this year, it raised $8 billion in a so-called "people's IPO," in which many individual Russian investors bought shares in the bank. Since then, it has been one of the worst-performing Russian blue chips, with its share price falling by more than 20 percent since May, prompting outrage from minority shareholders who had expected the government to support the stock.

The murder investigation is the second into the death of a VTB official in just over a year. In October 2006, Alexander Plokhin, a branch manager at VTB-24, was shot dead at his home in Moscow.

Zhukovsky headed up VTB's lending operations with the timber industry, in which he was prominent figure. In October he held a presentation with the Federal Forestry Agency on the development of the industry through 2015.

VTB spokeswoman Tatyana Yurovskikh said the bank did not want to make a statement regarding Zhukovsky's death. A senior executive at the bank said Friday afternoon that he had only recently learned of his colleague's death and was not authorized to comment.

Zhukovsky's close involvement with the forestry industry, which is worth an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion annually, has led to speculation that his death might be connected with VTB's lending activities in the sector.

Russia's timber industry is particularly criminalized, analysts said, and it has been the center of some of the country's most hostile corporate takeover attempts in recent years.

The situation has been exacerbated, said Andrei Yarashchenko, head of Greenpeace Russia's forestry department, by the new Forestry Code that came into effect in January, which will terminate existing leases for timber companies and make way for new agreements. The companies are now competing with one another for control of the most lucrative leases.

"The rules developed by the government are not very clear about how it should be done," Yarashchenko said, adding that poor government regulation attracts criminal interests.

But industry insiders said Zhukovsky did not court controversy, and they expressed skepticism that his death, which bore echoes of the brutal business dealings of the 1990s, was related to his professional activities.

"I really don't think it was connected with his work. ... He was a fantastic person, full of life," said Roman Shipov, an adviser at the Federal Forestry Agency. "His death is a huge loss, not only to us, but particularly to the banking industry."

Zhukovsky was not involved in negotiations surrounding the new Forestry Code, Shipov said.

Analysts say the industry has cleaned itself up in recent years, and U.S. firm International Paper last year acquired a 50 percent stake in Ilim Pulp, the country's largest timber company -- an important boost to the sector's perceived transparency.

"The timber industry has become much more civilized," said Anna Krylova, a forestry analyst at Antanta Capital. "It is one of the most capital-intensive sectors ... and it requires billions of dollars [in investment]. Banks are beginning to work with the industry, but carefully."

Zhukovsky previously worked for Guta Bank, which folded in mid-2004 during a liquidity crisis in the country's banking sector. It was quickly rescued by VTB, which used it as the base for the formation of its retail arm, VTB-24.

VTB called the acquisition of Guta Bank a commercial affair, while the Central Bank said the move was made to stabilize the sector.