MOSCOW DAYS: Greedy criminals muscle in on lucrative world of sport

Russia's Interior Minister, Anatoly Kulikov, is not an especially endearing character. His penchant for uniforms, his love of decorating his squat frame with medals, and his belligerent approach to the Chechen war smack of reactionary Soviet politics. In the cliched language of Kremlin reporting, his name is often coupled with the "H" word: "hardliner".

But he is right about one thing. A few days ago, he warned that crooks from Mafia-style groups have not only infiltrated the machinery of state, from the judiciary to the police, but also Russia's most lucrative industries, such as gold, diamonds, alcohol, tobacco. Now, alas, another category must be added to that list: sport.

Murders by bomb and bullet have become too frequent to merit much space in the media, but the killing of Larisa Nechayeva is an exception. Even by the standards of this crime-worn society, her death is shocking. Yesterday NTV, the best television news service, placed it at the top of their bulletins.

Ms Nechayeva was the number two at Spartak Moscow, Russia's leading football club. That fact alone made her highly unusual as businesses rarely employ women in senior positions. Among her duties was that of running the club's finances and recruiting sponsors. A youthful-looking blonde, she attracted the attention of Spartak, whose crowd numbers have fallen off sharply since Soviet times, by promising to turn it into a "super-club" supported by wealthy sponsors.

Last Sunday - if initial reports are accurate - Ms Nechayeva was driving through Taratovo, a village about 75 miles east of Moscow, where Spartak owns some villas. At around noon, someone opened up on her car, shooting her in the head. She was killed, along with another woman. The evidence points to a contract assassination, a Mafia-style hit.

The interest in Ms Nechayeva's death would certainly have been less, were it not for another assassination earlier this year which made it obvious that the talons of organised crime are now wrapped around Russian sport. The days when sport was a symbol of Soviet success, pursued for love of the motherland, are clearly gone.

In April, Valentin Sych died in a hail of automatic rifle bullets, fired into his car by a gunman in a passing vehicle. As head of the Russian Hockey Federation, he was a nationally known figure. Shortly before he died, Mr Sych, 60, gave an interview to Reuters news agency in which he complained about the growing role of crime in sport and warned that players and officials were coming under increasing pressure from greedy mobsters.

The criminal world's move to muscle in on Russian sport owes much to the simple fact that this is where the money is. In the last few years, top teams have been taking a leaf out of the West's book by introducing sponsorship and trading stars; Russian hockey teams have been raking in huge sums from their counterparts in the United States' National Hockey League for the rights to top Russian players. When Mr Sych was killed, rumours circulated that he was not an innocent party, having had access to some of this booty which he refused to share with his killers.

Such claims easily take root here, not least because ice hockey has a murky reputation. But the problem has deeper roots which run into the Kremlin itself. In the chaos that followed the end of the Soviet Union, the Russian government lacked the money to carry on supporting sport from the budget. The Yeltsin administration decided that one way funds could be generated was by granting certain sporting organisations the right to import alcohol and cigarettes free of tax. The result was not only massive, uncontrolled, profits; it also ensured that sport was quickly criminalised. The ice hockey federation is rumoured to have made an annual $13m (pounds 8.1m) on booze alone.

The practice has since been curtailed, but the biggest player of all was the National Sports Foundation, which provided bundles of cash for the President's re-election campaign.

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