Why murder is a matter for the Round Table

IT SEEMED that murder had lost its power to shock in today's Russia. As one Moscow daily noted recently: "Triple killings have become a normal occurrence." The Moskovski Komsomolets described a quadruple killing, where the victims all had their throats cut after being beaten to death with dumb-bells. The news was worth a filler.

When three men were gunned down this month at a cafe on Tverskaya Street -Moscow's version of Oxford Street - that, too, hardly caused anybody to blink, least of all the police.

Even by Moscow's standards, however, the death this month of a leading banker, Ivan Kivelidi, has been perceived as shocking. Partly, perhaps, it was the style of the murder, which was peculiarly sinister: by poison apparently applied to a piece of furniture or a telephone. Mr Kivelidi's secretary died from the same poison. It may just have been a killing too far.

Last week, a bizarre collection of wealthy businessmen and their bodyguards gathered on Lubyanka Square, just across the road from the towering headquarters of the former KGB.

Officially, the businessmen were mourning their dead colleague. Above all, however, their message was: enough is enough. Each of the men who stood with bowed head and lighted candle on Lubyanka Square knew that he could be next in line.

There have been 85 contract attacks on bankers in the past three years; more than half were lethal. Barely a fortnight before Mr Kivelidi's death, another banker and his bodyguard had their throats cut while staying at a dacha in the countryside.

Mr Kivelidi's death caused particular outrage because he was generally seen as being "clean". The Round Table of Russian Business, of which he was chairman, had sought to divest business of its sleazy image.

Mr Kivelidi's funeral was attended by senior politicians past and present - including the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and the former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, unseated in a coup four years ago yesterday.

Until now, attitudes to Russian murder have been largely passive. Business people who are killed are assumed to have been involved in criminal dealings themselves, or to have failed to pay their dues. Mafia "protection" in Moscow is now so routine that it is almost unthinkable for business people to get away without paying a percentage to somebody, somewhere.

Four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, many of Russia's new business class are realising that their regular payment of dues does not necessarily guarantee a quiet life and still leaves open the possibility of violent death.

Argumenty i Fakty last week carried a front-page league table showing that none of the best-known murders in recent years has been cleared up. The respected television journalist Vladislav Listyev was shot in March. No arrests have been made. Dmitry Kholodov, a journalist who was investigating high-level army corruption, was blown up last year. Again, no arrests.

After Mr Kivelidi's death, Mr Chernomyrdin promised "tough measures" against crime, and even announced that a "special report" would be prepared for President Boris Yeltsin. Izvestia's response was scathing. "Does the President not know, without a special report, what is happening in his country?" Izvestia said there had been 70 pages of crime-fighting declarations in the past year alone. "And the result: one doesn't dare to go to the police - going there is more frightening than entering a den of thieves ... the government is unable to fight crime."

Businessmen have offered a $1m reward to find Mr Kivelidi's killer. Vladimir Shcherbakov, vice-president of the Round Table, is blunt: "Unfortunately, we have grounds to think that the police are closely related to the criminals. None of the investigations of contract killings last year produced any results."

Business people often operate in dubious legality themselves. At the very least, tax evasion - to beat a rate of 80 per cent - is more or less openly admitted

Some businessmen are now outlining proposals for a charter for clean business, to try to end the spiral of violence. Oleg Kiselev, a Round Tabler and proponent of a charter, told the financial daily, Kommersant: "If you let the disease take hold, then the criminals' control of business will be complete."

It remains to be seen whether politicians (or even business) are ready to grasp this nettle. It is unclear, too, how far ordinary Russians can be persuaded to care. For the moment, it seems unlikely the mobsters are quaking behind the smoked-glass windows of their limousines.

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