There is a brisk solution to business quarrels in Russia these days, as TV star Vladislav Listyev found out. Andrew Higgins reports
Andrei Makarevich, lead singer of the Russian rock band Time Machine, went on Russian television yesterday to offer this advice to countrymen: "Normal people have two choices: run away or instead of paying taxes, use the money to buy a gun and take care of things themselves." This, he said, is the only rational response to what has become Russia's most ghoulish growth industry - murder.

How much it costs to kill depends on the prominence of the victim. Murder, unlike other markets in the frenzy and chaos of post-Soviet money-making, is a finely calibrated affair. But even the most expensive murder comes cheap - only $15,000.

Vladislav Listyev, the 38-year-old ex-journalist shot in the shoulder and head in his apartment building, was a top-of-the-range job. Police say he was killed by a two-man hit squad, each with a Browning pistol and each responsible for a single shot. They fled in a BMW - the vehicle of choice for Russian hoods. Their motive was not theft: they left $1,500, 2 million roubles and a briefcase of important documents found beside the body.

"The terrible thing is that murder has become a commodity for sale," says Oleg Poptsov, the head of Russian Television, one of two main state- owned channels. "You can order first category or second category or third category murder." Mr Listyev was definitely a first category killing.

He is not the first public figure to be murdered: three members of parliament have been rubbed out in mafia-style contract hits in the past 10 months. Nor is he the first journalist: a young reporter was blown to bits by a booby-trapped briefcase in October. All the murders remain unsolved.

But none of these victims - nor the dozens of bankers and businessmen who have also been assassinated - had the fame or popularity of the man gunned down on Wednesday evening as he walked to his apartment in the centre of Moscow. A mixture of Larry King - he even wore coloured braces like the CNN interviewer - Jonathan Dimbleby and Bruce Forsyth, Mr Listyev had not been off Russian television screens for nearly a decade.

Such was his prominence that Eduard Sagalayev, president of TV-6, a rival channel to Mr Listyev's Ostankino, yesterday compared him with Yuri Gagarin, the greatest of the Soviet era's public icons. If Russians once put their hope in the space programme, today they put whatever little faith they have left in television.

Mr Listyev moved from presenting a hard-hitting current events programme called Vzglyad (View) in the early years of perestroika to the celebrity fizz of Pole Chudes (Fields of Miracles), a Russian equivalent of Countdown that became the country's most popular programme. He also hosted an earnest weekly talk show called Tema (Theme). One of the last themes discussed before moving on to start yet another programme was contract killings: "Let's hope none of us will never feel any sense of fear that he can be killed," Mr Listyev said.

But that was before he made his last and fatal change of direction. Last month, he moved from producing and presenting to running television. In other words, he moved into business. Named director-general of a new joint-stock company called Public Russian Television (ORT), he assumed control over the management of the revamped and semi-privatised state channel, Ostankino.

On Wednesday evening, a colleague asked the usually ebullient Mr Listyev how he liked the new job. He replied: "I've got problems". An hour later, he was dead.

The source of his problems is thought to have been advertising, which, though an infant industry in Russia, is already worth an estimated $1bn a year. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia used to revile the trade as "a means of swindling the people". It was not far wrong.

It is this swindle that many believe cost Mr Listyev his life. Until the reorganisation of Ostankino television last month, almost all the advertising on the main state channel was funnelled through an outfit called Reklama-Holding, which in turn was dominated by the Russian agency, Premier. Another big agency, Video International, controlled access to the other main state-run channel, Russian Television. It was a cosy and, according to some advertising executives, hugely corrupt system.

The system was under threat. What had been a monopoly for the placing of ads was recently diluted to include smaller agencies in Reklama-Holding. Further changes lay ahead. Last month, Ostankino announced it would cease showing advertisements altogether. The ban, however, was seen as a temporary move - a breathing space in which to clean up the mess, set up an in- house advertising placement service and account for millions of dollars in missing money.

Alexander Yakovlev, a former aide to Mr Gorbachev who ran ORT with Mr Listyev, is in no doubt that this change triggered his murder. "We must have crossed someone's path," he said yesterday, adding that he too had received threats. A preliminary shake-up of the way the ORT handles advertisements shown on Ostankino, he said, had already led to a leap in revenue. Instead of receiving only 5bn roubles a month, the television station now earned 35bn roubles: "The difference must have ended up in someone's pocket before." Yegor Gaidar, former prime minister, seems to share this view. "Vladislav Listyev must have crossed the path of someone whose income was based on the illegal sale of advertising time," he says.

Mr Listyev, it seems, fell victim to what has become the dominant form of business competition in Russia - the turf battle. Property and commodities that once belonged to the state - or did not exist at all - are being carved up into private fiefdoms. Eduard Topel, a speaker at a memorial meeting for the murdered television star held yesterday at the House of Journalists, said: "Contract murders and murder in general have bcome a norm resolving any conflicts, economic, industrial and political."

It is a measure of the way business works that Vladimir Zhechkov, director of Premier-SV, one of the agencies that stood to lose most from the Ostankino shake-up, thought it necessary to deny any involvement in murder. "After Listyev's death, disorder will grip the advertising market. Many will suspect us. Many clients will refuse to deal with us. So on our side there could be no such step."

Such are the perils of doing business that several leading businessmen have fled the country or sent their families abroad. Vladimir Gusinsky, head of a banking, media and property conglomerate called MOST, now spends most of his time in London after he became embroiled in a political and economic feud between the Kremlin and the Mayor of Moscow.

"This is a struggle for money," says Svyatoslav Fyodorov, a world- famous eye surgeon and prominent Moscow tycoon. "The struggle rages for property, for people, for their souls, for their bodies. Russia is the Klondike. Before, we lived in a concentration camp with a strict regime. Suddenly, we decided to make democracy. All the guards got their property; we were left without anything."

How much was paid to kill Mr Listyev will almost certainly never be known for sure. A year after Andrei Aidzerszis, the first of three murdered State Duma deputies, was shot outside his own apartment last April, police are still looking for the culprit. Also at large is whoever sent a booby- trapped briefcase to Dmitri Kholodov, a young journalist with Moskovsky Komsomolets. Most Russians regard the police as virtual accomplices, so deep is the corruption at every level of state power.

Even if the identity of Mr Listyev's killer is never discovered, the law of the jungle offers some hope of revenge if not justice, says Mr Fyodorov. "The slogan of our economy and for everyone is this: you die today and I'll die tomorrow. The one who killed Listyev today knows that someone will kill him tomorrow. He accepts this. This is the philosophy of our entire system, of our whole country."