Back To The Future

Sept. 12 started out like any other day for Sergey Kukura, the finance director of one of Russia's largest oil firms, LUKOil: he plunked down onto a soft leather seat in the back of his chauffeured automobile. But as his black Mercedes S600 headed toward his office and neared a railway crossing, two cars pulled alongside and forced it off the road. At least four men in camouflage jumped out wielding Kalashnikovs, handcuffed Kukura's driver and bodyguard, put sacks over their heads, then plunged needles of heroin into their arms. When the men regained consciousness hours later their mobile phones, car keys and the bodyguard's pistol was gone. So was their boss. He'd been hustled into a Volga with police license plates.

Late last week, exactly two weeks after the crime, somebody dumped Kukura near his home in broad daylight. The oil tycoon was so disoriented sources suggest somebody may have pumped him full of heroin as well. LUKOil denies that any ransom was paid for his release. As yet, authorities seem to have no clue who grabbed him. The case promises to end as mysteriously as it began.

Episodes like this might not have been as shocking in the old gangster days of Boris Yeltsin's newly post-Soviet Russia. But this is 2002, and Kukura is among the highest-ranking businessmen in the country. The president is supposed to be overseeing a sober, authoritarian and decriminalized New Russia, as some call it. But suddenly it's back to the bad old days of the "Wild East." Kukura's case is just one of a slew of recent incidents that seem to herald another open season on leading businessmen and politicians. The day after Kukura was kidnapped, an airport customs chief was fatally shot near his office. Duma parliamentarian Vladimir Golovlyov was assassinated on Aug. 21 while walking his dog in the woods near his home. Just the day before, the deputy head of the Moscow Railways had been gunned down in his neighborhood. Outside Moscow, the vice governor of the Smolensk region was shot seven times on Aug. 7, and elsewhere the deputy mayor of Novosibirsk (the second deputy mayor from the city to be killed in 11 months) was gunned down while leaving his parents' dacha on Aug. 26. And that's just to name a few.

Most Russians refuse to describe these killings were "political," even when the victims held elective office. Most believe the deaths (like Kukura's kidnapping) are linked to the same factors that drove the Wild East of old: the creation and frantic redistribution of wealth in the Putin era and, on a lesser scale, the settling of old feuds. Kukura, for instance, knows all about the financial dealings of LUKOil--a company that handles more than 20 percent of all of Russia's oil exports. And, with war looming in Iraq, there's no business that stands to yield more profit in Russia nowadays than oil. After Kukura's kidnapping, LUKOil issued a statement saying some of the information Kukura was privy to could be classified as "state secrets." The list of those with a possible interest in such information is long, from mafia gangs to business competitors to rogue security agents and feuding groups within LUKOil.

In other words, Russia hasn't changed as much in the past decade as many would have hoped, says Yuri Shchekochikhin, vice chairman of the Duma's Committee on Security. Pointing to the Audis and Mercedeses in the Parliament's parking lot, not to mention the lawmakers in tailored suits walking around with bodyguards, he notes the monthly salary of the typical deputy: about $300. "This Parliament is filled with 'businessmen'," he says. "Politics is just their krisha," or roof--Russian slang for mafia-style protection. "It wasn't like this a few years ago," he adds, suggesting a reason for the regression. As Shchekochikhin sees it, Russia is spiraling into the same cause-and-effect scenario it experienced in the bloody early '90s. Now that the leadership has changed hands, new sectors of the economy are up for grabs, especially in the red-hot energy sector, and no one is wasting any time in fighting for them. LUKOil, for one, is pushing for new oil fields in Siberia; other oligarch groups are expanding into the auto and chemical industries, or into Russia's newly privatized agricultural land. At the same time, the Putin administration is likely to break up monopolies that were created from the great post-Soviet feeding frenzy over state property: railroads and banks, pension funds and utilities. Many of these assets are in the hands of Soviet-style Moscow bureaucrats and regional administrative bosses--and they're not likely to let them go peacefully. "There will be a lot of emotion," warns Lilia Shevtsova, Moscow analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "And murder."

Dabbling in business means that politicians, too, have become targets. Eight legislators have been murdered since 1991--including Golovlyov, who had already survived one assassination attempt earlier this year. Golovlyov's allies insist his killing was political. The 45-year-old parliamentarian was known as a liberal lawmaker, a democrat who did not hesitate to criticize the Kremlin on everything from the war in Chechnya to the meltdown of free political discourse in the Putin era. But few outside his party are buying it. Golovlyov was also the focus of a corruption probe that involved the embezzling of tens of millions of dollars from the Urals region, where he supervised the privatization of state property in the early '90s. Right before his assassination, he was threatening to name names.

If all this feels like deja vu, there's at least one unsettling difference. These days, says Shchekochikhin, it's not the old mafia that's calling the shots in crime. That role, he says, "has been usurped by the government." Gangs might be able to take over a small business, but only if their local militia gives the green light. Corrupt government officials also see the new climate as a second chance at missed opportunities from the past. Because Russia's legal system is both arbitrary and abused, it is not hard to re-examine past privatization deals and find fault with them, especially when judges can and have been paid off.

One thing is clear. Politicians and businessmen are now fair game--and their murderers are not likely to be caught. It's also said that the best mafia-style "protection" a person can get nowadays is from the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB) or the tax police. Those groups can make or break you in Putin's Russia. "Everyone now knows that the Prosecutor's Office or the FSB is the best 'roof' you could ever have," says Sergey Yushenkov, coleader of the Liberal Russia Party. How ironic, at a time when old-style mafia roughnecks are happy to give up their former life. "Most have enough money. They've given up their red suits and their Jeep Pajeros, and their children are long since enrolled in Swiss schools," says analyst Shevtsova. "They want to be respected and are rejecting their old and dirty tricks." But that just means someone else--a force not classified as a criminal group--is adopting those same dirty tricks. Kukura's abduction and Golovlyov's killing prove that old habits die hard, especially when the stakes--once again--are high.