The American editor of the Russian edition of Forbes said he believed the troubled country was entering a new era where businesses would not be run like mafia crime families, but when he was gunned down outside his Moscow office, the killing had all the signs of a mob hit.
Paul Klebnikov, 41, who opened the Russian edition of Forbes this spring, was gunned down Friday as he was leaving work. Before he died he reportedly said his killer had driven up to him and shot him from the window of a car.
According to the report on the Russian Web site Strana.ru, Klebnikov said he had never seen his attacker before and didn't know why he had been targeted. The car was found abandoned the next day, and police were examining it for clues.
The professional-style slaying of a journalist is all too common in Russia, where by some counts as many as 200 reporters have been killed since the collapse of the Soviet Union 13 years ago. In just a handful of those cases has anyone been convicted, a failure that human and journalists' rights groups say is a result of a combination of police and governmental corruption and an antipathy among officials toward journalists, especially those doing investigative work.
"There is a problem that those in power don't want a free press," said Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations, a Moscow-based group that works to promote the development of free, independent media in Russia.
Klebnikov's killing also comes as a caution that any optimism about the development of an open business environment — with government by the rule of law, not by the gun — still must be guarded.
It was just that kind of optimism that seemed to be heralded when Forbes began publishing its Russian edition in April, and that Klebnikov expressed in May as he unveiled an issue listing the 100 richest people in Russia.
"Russia is entering a new stage of capitalism and I think all the participants on this list are happy to be entering that new stage," he said. "That's a stage moving away from the shadow economy, moving away from well, say, a black market type of mentality, towards a more civilized, transparent, open form of capitalism."
But some have expressed the opinion that it may be because of that list that he was killed, because someone on it did not want the publicity.
Russian Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov announced the investigation will be handled by a unit that takes the country's most difficult and important cases. However, Strana.ru reported, citing "sources close to the investigation," that investigators have "no one detained for this case and there are no declared suspects who are wanted."
What struck some who have worked to draw attention to the rash of killings of journalists in Russia was that police were quick to link Klebnikov's shooting to his work as a journalist, when in most cases the slayings have been written off as random street crimes.
"In these cases, police always say it has nothing to do with journalism, yet in this case the first thing they say is that there is a connection," said Ruslan Goryevoy, the information analysis director of the Glasnost Defense Fund, a Moscow-based organization that works to defend the rights of journalists in Russia.
Paul Jenkins, a British independent filmmaker whose documentary, The Russian Newspaper Murders, was broadcast on PBS stations the day before Klebnikov was gunned down, said if the government takes more action to solve the American journalist's killing than it has to solve the dozens of other similar crimes, it may be because of another agenda.
"One may see Klebnikov being used by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin as a lever against the oligarchs," Jenkins said, referring to the class of Russians who became extraordinarily wealthy capitalizing on the corrupt privatization of Soviet factories and industries.
"That's not to say that one of the oligarchs was not involved, though," he said.
Goryevoy said he believed it more likely that if Klebnikov's killing was related to his work, it was not because of the list of Russia's richest people, but because he had recently expressed an interest in investigating the killing of two journalists in the city of Togliatti — killings examined in Jenkins' film.
Panfilov agreed that there is little reason to believe any of the people on the Forbes list were upset about the publicity.
"Everybody knows who in Russia is rich, because in Russia people do not hide their money," he said. "They drive big cars, live in fancy houses and wear Rolexes. In Russia, oligarchs don't ride the metro or the buses."
Klebnikov himself said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio shortly after the publication of the list that some of the people on it had reacted angrily, "at least in public."
If Klebnikov's killer is found, it will still leave dozens of journalists' deaths unsolved, and Jenkins said that with the "intertwining of political, industrial and criminal power bases" in Russia, that is unlikely to change, especially given the attitude toward the role of a free press.
"I don't think there's any understanding at the top of Russia of the role a free, independent media can play in sorting Russia out," he said. "I don't think there's any sense of the role a free, independent media can play strengthening the economy, in building confidence and increasing investment. I think the media is seen as being an impediment to all of that."