Backing off earlier statements, Moscow police deny progress in Klebnikov case

New York, October 4, 2004—Moscow police have backed away from statements made by their chief last week in which he said two Chechen men were considered suspects in the murder of Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia, according to local press reports.

Police Chief Vladimir Pronin was widely quoted in local and international news reports September 28 as saying that police had made progress in the investigation. He said two Chechens arrested in a kidnapping case were found with a gun believed to be used in the Klebnikov slaying.

But the assertion soon unraveled. Later last week, investigators said three Makarov pistols were seized during the arrest of the Chechen men, while a Stechkin pistol was suspected in the Klebnikov murder, The Moscow Times reported.

Several analysts had reacted to news of the Chechen men’s arrests with skepticism, saying the development seemed far-fetched and politically convenient. Moscow’s chief prosecutor later rebuked Pronin, telling the Interfax news agency that he was not authorized to discuss the Klebnikov investigation.

By Friday, police backed off Pronin’s statements entirely. A police press officer, Kirill Mazurin, told the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency that Pronin denied even making the remarks.

Klebnikov, 41, an American journalist of Russian descent, was shot nine times by at least one assassin in a passing car as he left his Moscow office the night of July 9. An investigative reporter, Klebnikov had written a number of books and articles that angered his subjects. Among other topics, he wrote about organized crime in Chechnya, and the shadowy world of Russia’s business tycoons.

Klebnikov was the 11th journalist to be murdered in a contract-style slaying since Russian President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000. No one has been brought to justice in any of the slayings.

Klebnikov launched Forbes Russia in April 2004, believing that reforms were propelling the country toward greater transparency in business and politics. In his first editorial, Klebnikov said Russian business had arrived at a “new, more civilized stage of development.”

In May, Forbes Russia published a list of Russia’s 100 wealthiest people and reported that Moscow had 33 billionaires, more than any other city in the world. Publication of the list focused attention on Russia’s billionaires, many of whom are trying to keep a low profile as Putin’s regime uses the courts, prosecutors, and security services to rein in oligarchs and strengthen the state’s economic role.

U.S.-based National Public Radio reported that some oligarchs threatened the editor, claiming their assets were inflated on the Forbes list.

Klebnikov had investigated other powerful people as well. In 1996 he profiled Boris Berezovsky, the media and oil tycoon who had close ties to the Kremlin during President Boris Yeltsin’s tenure. The Forbes profile suggested Berezovsky might have been involved in the 1995 murder of television journalist Vladislav Listyev, an allegation that prompted Berezovsky to sue Klebnikov and Forbes in the United Kingdom for libel. The suit was withdrawn after Forbes said it had no proof of Berezovsky’s involvement.

Klebnikov expanded his profile of Berezovsky into a book titled “Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism,” which he published in 2001.

Klebnikov’s second book was published in Russian. “Conversation with a Barbarian: Interviews with a Chechen Field Commander on Banditry and Islam” was based on interviews with Chechen separatist leader Khozh Akhmed Nukhayev and focused on organized crime in Chechnya.