Forbes' Paul Klebnikov: A Victim of Political Terrorism?

July 14, 2004 Topic: Terrorism

Forbes' Paul Klebnikov: A Victim of Political Terrorism?

 Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia, was killed in Moscow on Friday night.

 Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia , was killed in Moscow on Friday night. There is every indication he was a victim of a professional contract assassination. Russia's officialdom was quick to condemn Klebnikov's murder, with General Prosecutor Vladimir Ustinov personally taking charge of the investigation. Since Friday, the Moscow rumor mill has created a checklist of possible reasons for the slaying. The most important question remains: was Klebnikov a victim of political terrorism?

An unrivaled investigative business journalist, Klebnikov quickly amassed numerous foes among Russia's wealthy elite. In Russia, it remains dangerous to talk and write about other people's money. A strong opponent of Russia's "oligarchic" economy, Vladimir Putin has lost one of his most articulate supporters.

It is believed that Klebnikov was gunned down near the magazine's Moscow office by two assailants - four of the nine bullets fired hitting the intended target. Klebnikov, found mortally wounded in the street by a Forbes employee, died before receiving emergency medical care. Before he died, it is reported that he said he had no idea who would want to kill him.

Author of the highly regarded bestseller, Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia , Klebnikov was relatively new to Moscow as a full-time resident - but was no stranger to Russian politics and business. Of Russian descent and at Forbes for 15 years, his coverage of Russia's very corrupt transition to a market economy remains a benchmark of quality writings for journalists and analysts.

On April 22 - a clear mock and parody on Vladimir Lenin's birthday - Klebnikov launched publication of Forbes Russia , writing that Russia had "began a new, more civilized stage of development." The following month, the magazine's very popular flagship product of ranking the country's wealthiest individuals was a media sensation. In the same issue, he wrote, "the era of so-called bandit-capitalism is already in the past. In the mid-90s it was a very, very dirty process."


Forbes' ranking of the wealthy is known worldwide, but not in Russia. Journalists are often killed in Russia for writing on corruption and how the wealthy generate income. Thus, when Russian media do comment on the wealth of the business elite, it does so with caution. Forbes Russia did not use caution - it carefully calculated.

With the publication of the "100 richest," many in the ranking claimed their wealth was grossly over-estimated and were outraged by the intense media coverage. To add to their concerns, the Kremlin's leading auditing and investigative agencies commented that Klebnikov's methodology and conclusions were accurate. This instantly made Klebnikov a very unpopular media figure among Russia's "oligarchs."

Publication of "Forbes Russia" comes at a time when the very wealthy in a very poor country are carefully watching the legal travails of Russia's richest individual, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the Kremlin's assault on the country's largest privately-owned company, the oil giant Yukos. With hints that the Kremlin intends to take down other oligarchs, the last thing the wealthy want is a higher media profile. There was every reason to believe that Klebnikov intended to keep doing what he was best at -- expert coverage of illegal business activity in Russia.

Since May, Klebnikov regularly appeared on television talks shows. He was openly critical of Russia's transition from communism -- which created a small group of super-rich, the oligarchs. Klebnikov also expressed his support of Vladimir Putin and the president's economic reform efforts. With the Kremlin's continuing offensive against the oligarchs, Klebnikov most likely was seen as an outsider meddling in the affairs of others.

Meddling in other's affairs most probably is at the root of this tragic assassination - though not just private business affairs. The killing of Klebnikov may also have been very much a political affair.  

Some Western observers have claimed a Chechen connection to the assassination. Chechen terrorists are blamed for many things that happen in Russia, but eliminating Klebnikov was probably not one of them. The calculus to kill Klebnikov most likely has more to do with the Kremlin's intent to re-arrange property ownership of Russia's natural resource sectors. 

It is unfortunate that many in Western media have been quick to indirectly blame Putin and his tightening grip on the electronic media and assault on Yukos for Klebnikov's death. These events are not related, but there may be some distant overlapping connections. These vague connections might explain the targeting and death of Klebnikov.

Murdering Klebnikov can be interpreted as an act of political terrorism.  Klebnikov's fearless investigative talents certainly may have angered those behind the murder, but the real target might be Putin. Removing a high-profile Western supporter of Putin's anti-oligarchy campaign may have been an equally high-profile message that the moneyed elite has resources and other means to discredit the Kremlin's latest political initiative. There is a strong, though very muffled, perception among some oligarchs that Yukos and its core shareholders, Mikhail Khodorkovsky most importantly, are too willing to submit to Kremlin pressure. Stated differently, "if you (the Kremlin) want war, then let it be war." Paul Klebnikov may be have not only been caught in the cross-fight, but also used as cannon fodder in this developing confrontation.