Prosecutors investigating the gangland-style slaying of a Moscow-based American investigative journalist were focusing Monday on the possibility that the killing was linked to his work, a view shared by many observers in Russia’s political and business circles.
The most widely voiced suspicion was that Paul Klebnikov, 41, the editor of Forbes magazine’s recently launched Russian edition, was the victim of a contract killing ordered because the magazine in May published a list of the 100 richest Russians.
Klebnikov was gunned down Friday evening in a hail of nine bullets -- four of which struck him -- after leaving Forbes’ Moscow office, authorities said. The assailant or assailants sped off in a car, which police said they recovered Saturday.
Investigators “are so far inclined to believe that Klebnikov was assassinated because of his professional activities,” the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported Monday.
Initial Russian news reports said Klebnikov died in an ambulance on his way to the hospital. But Mikhail Fishman, a senior correspondent for the Russian edition of Newsweek, who accompanied him in the ambulance, said Klebnikov was rushed into an elevator at the hospital, which became stuck for about 10 minutes until a mechanic got it moving again.
“I was climbing the walls, literally, trying to do something about the situation, but to no avail,” Fishman said. “After the elevator was set in motion again, the woman who emerged from the elevator told me that everything was over.”
The targets and potential targets of Klebnikov’s journalistic eye were numerous enough that fingers of suspicion pointed in various directions. A fluent speaker of Russian, Klebnikov was particularly knowledgeable about this country’s murky business world, in which fortunes were made through the corrupt privatization of state assets in the 1990s -- and in which gangsters have often been used to resolve business disputes.
Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov has taken a direct interest in the case, a spokesman for his office told the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday.
Yevgeny Vittenberg, president of Intelbridge, a Moscow think tank, said: “It was clearly an assassination. Most likely, his death is related to the billionaires list. Someone did not want to be exposed in such a way.”
The list of the richest Russians included 36 billionaires. Together, those top figures on the list control about $110 billion, equal to about one-quarter of the country’s annual economic output, Klebnikov said in May at a news conference promoting the issue of the magazine.
Heading the list was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former chief executive of Yukos Oil Co., who is facing trial on charges of tax evasion and fraud. Before his arrest last year, Khodorkovsky was seen as a leader in efforts to promote transparency and more Western-style practices in Russian business.
He extended his condolences to Forbes’ offices Monday in a statement issued by his lawyers.
“Paul Klebnikov has undoubtedly made a tremendous contribution to the cause of establishing the traditions of openness and transparency on the Russian market,” the statement said. “It was possible to constructively argue with him -- and so we did.... I am grieved that the tragic death of your editor has become yet another dreadful confirmation of the fact that society is not yet ready for such openness.”
Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, said in comments reported by Interfax that “outrage, displeasure and undisguised anger” had been directed at Forbes after the publication of the list.
“The people who became billionaires ... and cannot explain where they had gotten this money -- either to the world or to the law enforcement agencies -- just cannot stand such reports,” Yakovenko said.
Said Vittenberg: “Maybe Russia’s capitalism today is not as barbaric and wild as it was in the early 1990s, but the change has not been that dramatic. A country where issues are resolved like in the Wild West, with the aid of a Colt handgun, does not look terribly attractive.”
A descendant of emigres who fled Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Klebnikov expressed optimism about the country’s future after moving here to launch the edition.
“The era of so-called bandit capitalism is already in the past,” he said in May. “In the mid-1990s, it was a very, very dirty process.”
Klebnikov wrote an article in 1996 for Forbes that described Boris Berezovsky, at the time a powerful businessman and key Kremlin insider, as a “gangland boss.” The tycoon responded with a libel suit in Britain that forced the magazine to withdraw an allegation that he had ordered the 1995 slaying of television journalist Vladislav Listyev. In 2000, Klebnikov published a book titled “Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia.”
“Somebody clearly did not like the way he operated and decided to sort it out with him, Russian-style, not through the English courts like I did,” Berezovsky said in comments quoted in Monday’s Moscow Times. “Klebnikov was like a bull in a china shop.... All over the world rich people like to keep a low profile.”
In Russia, publication of such a list “is like informing on them to the prosecutors,” he said. “Standards are different.”
Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.