MOSCOW -- The killing of a leading Russian central banker probably was related to his work, which involved closing banks engaged in illegal activities such as money-laundering, authorities said yesterday.
Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov, who was shot Wednesday night and died early yesterday morning, led an effort that revoked the licenses of 44 banks this year. He was widely viewed at home and abroad as a particularly intelligent and honest figure among top Russian civil servants, and his death is considered a serious blow to efforts to combat corruption.
"I have no doubt that it was a contract murder connected with his professional activities," Mikhail Grishankov, deputy chairman of the security committee in the lower house of parliament, said in televised remarks.
"Every year, dozens of billions of dollars pass through small banks to be cashed by criminal organizations and representatives of shadow businesses. He was trying his best to stop the crazy flood of black, dirty or gray money in our economy."
At a Cabinet meeting yesterday, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov called for a minute of silence to honor Kozlov, 41.
Kozlov and his driver, Alexander Semyonov, were shot Wednesday evening as they left a sports stadium where bank workers had played a soccer game. Semyonov died instantly, and Kozlov died in a hospital after emergency surgery.
Police have found the suspected murder weapons, a homemade pistol and a gas pistol modified to fire bullets, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. The investigation is focusing more on banks threatened with having their licenses revoked than on owners of defunct banks, the news agency said.
The licenses of many banks have been revoked for money-laundering or because they participated in dubious schemes designed to minimize payment of import and value-added taxes, RIA Novosti said.
"Andrei Kozlov was at the forefront of efforts to reform and modernize Russia's banking sector, and he was among the brightest stars in the Russian government," Eugene K. Lawson, president of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, said in a statement released in Washington. "In addition to being the consummate professional, Andrei was our friend, and we will miss him."
For many Russians, the shooting echoed violent business struggles that were often conducted with the aid of contract killings after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, as competitors fought for control of newly privatized state assets.
"Back in the 1990s, we lived in chaos, with a promise that some order would emerge from it finally," said Irina Yasina, an economist at a Moscow think tank who is a former Central Bank spokeswoman.
"Now, there is a semblance of order, but under its thin film the most horrible things keep happening, and we are not even fully aware of the full scope. We are living as if on a volcano, running the risk of being destroyed by a lava eruption which can break through the thin crust under your feet at any time."
Russia has about 1,200 banking companies, including more than 1,000 small ones. Suspicions about who might have ordered Kozlov's killing have focused on the smaller banks, which often serve the narrow interests of their owners.
"Of course, it is impossible to say now who killed him," said Yuliya Latynina, an analyst with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "But it is obvious that it happened over a problem of some small bank protected by some frozen-brain bandits. ... Big banks don't usually have big problems, and even if they did, they would find other, more subtle ways to resolve them."
Yasina, who knew Kozlov, said he was "an honest and very sincere man."
"He was an ideal official. He was one of the best," she said. "Unfortunately, in our country the best die first."
David Holley writes for the Los Angeles Times.