One of Russia's most powerful anti-corruption crusaders has been assassinated in a contract killing, adding to fears that Moscow is reverting to its 1990s gangland past.
Andrei Kozlov, 41, the top deputy head of Russia's Central Bank, was shot on Wednesday night as he left a corporate football match in northern Moscow. He had spent years crossing swords with money-launderers and the Russian mafia's bankers, and had direct oversight of the entire Russian banking sector.
He and his driver were attacked as they left a sports stadium, and appear to have had little chance to defend themselves. Mr Kozlov was shot in the head and the chest, and died from his wounds in the early hours of yesterday morning, leaving behind a wife and three children.
Police say there is no doubt that the murder was a professional "hit". His driver was "finished off" with a shot to the forehead, suggesting that the assassins got the two men confused.
Mr Kozlov is the most senior official to have been murdered in a contract killing since the President, Vladimir Putin, came to power six years ago, and the government is interpreting his murder as an attack on the system itself. "[His murder] is an impudent challenge to the Russian government," said Anatoly Chubais, chairman of UES, Russia's state power company.
Mr Chubais, who himself survived an assassination attempt last year, said the government needed to respond with maximum force to Mr Kozlov's murder. "The authorities are obliged to respond harshly, effectively and mercilessly," he said.
The Russian cabinet observed a minute's silence, a sign of how significant a player Mr Kozlov was. As the man given the task of cleaning up Russia's sleaze-soaked banking sector, he is likely to have made powerful enemies. He shut down 44 banks this year because he said they were implicated in money-laundering and tax fraud, and recently called for any financiers proven to be crooked to be banned from the banking profession for life.
Had he survived Wednesday's attack, few doubt he would have continued methodically going through his blacklist of suspect banks, closing them down at an average rate of one a week.
Russia has around 1,200 banks, but it is an open secret that many of them are small and little more than personal treasuries or money laundering operations for organised crime figures.
There appeared to be little doubt yesterday that Mr Kozlov was killed because of his work, and his colleagues urged the police to "follow the money trail" and check out banks he has closed in the past, and those he planned to close in the future.
In a sign of how seriously the murder was being taken, Russia's prosecutor general said he had taken personal charge of the case, and Mikhail Fradkov, the Prime Minister, demanded the government receive regular reports on the investigation.
Alexander Shokhin, the head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, said Mr Kozlov's murder looked like a throwback to the bad old days. "This is just like the beginning of the 1990s when business problems were routinely settled with murder," he said. "This is the first case of that kind in many, many years. That is the other big shock."
* March 1995 - Vladislav Listyev, a TV presenter, killed by gunmen. Attack linked to a proposed advertising ban.
* November 1998 - Galina Starovoitova, a human rights campaigner, is shot dead.
* October 2002 - Valentin Tsvetkov, governor of Magadan region, is murdered. He tried to crack down on crime.
* July 2004 - Paul Klebnikov, Russian editor of Forbes, killed. Had written about corruption.
* October 2005 - Alexander Slesarev, a banker, is gunned down in his car with his family.Reuse content