The hit on Russia's Eliot Ness
September 19, 2006 | More from Nick Spicer
Nick Spicer has been the CBC News correspondent in Moscow since October 2004. Before that, he was a Paris-based reporter for the CBC and National Public Radio in the U.S. for 10 years. His Russian reporting has taken him the length and breadth of the country as well as into Afghanistan with Canadian troops.
Andrei Kozlov, the first deputy chairman of Russia's Central Bank, had something of an Eliot Ness appeal to him. He took on the country's corrupt banks and businessmen with the same determination and incorruptibility as the storied American Prohibition Bureau agent who felled Al Capone.
But unlike Ness, Kozlov wasn't an "Untouchable." On Sept. 13, he was fatally shot outside a Moscow sports stadium. He had just played a friendly soccer match with other bankers. The gunmen waiting for him in the parking lot were less sporting: They killed his driver on the spot and fatally shot Kozlov with bullets to the head and chest.
The news shocked the nation. As a measure of Kozlov's importance, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov called for a national moment of silence the day the 41-year-old family man was declared dead.
The murder immediately drew comparisons with the gangland violence that racked Moscow's streets in the 1990s. Still, one killing — however high-profile — does not a trend make.
There's no sign yet that exploding limos or daytime gunplay by thick-necked men on the streets of the Russian capital are coming back.
That said, the Kozlov hit could well be claiming more "victims" in the months to come. The first might be Russian President Vladimir Putin himself — at least as far as his anti-corruption credentials go.
In a State of the Nation address in 2005, Putin declared fighting widespread graft to be one of his personal priorities. A lawyer by training, he's also made clear he wants the country's laws applied and respected — what he calls "the dictatorship of the law."
The murder of Kozlov brings those goals, and the president's capacity to achieve them, spectacularly into question.
Kozlov's main job was busting corrupt banks. As he would point out, banking systems are crucial to a country's economic well-being because they make money available for investment and allow people to be certain their savings will still be around tomorrow.
Banks allow savers and borrowers to trust in the future. But people never really have been able to do that in post-communist Russia. Banks here have long inspired mistrust and fears of waste and swindling.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, scores of financial institutions were set up by corrupt businesses to launder money. In other words, they created them not to transform people's savings into loans, but to clean dirty money made in the unofficial economy.
In many cases, businessmen created banks simply to get access to the hard-earned savings of unsuspecting clients so they could prop up their other, unviable, ventures.
Kozlov shut down scores of such confidence-destroying institutions — a significant number among the more than 1,200 banks in operation in this country. Some colleagues called him "strict," others just "fair." He said he was just doing his job.
If Putin doesn't find someone else like him, crooked banks will continue to prosper, along with the shadow economy they sustain. And all the presidential anti-corruption speeches in the world won't wipe away the memory of Kozlov's brazen killing.
The second victim is the Russian people.
Kozlov helped them out — and the economy as a whole — by forcing banks to respect their customers more, so small investors would put their cash usefully into the national banking system and stop acting like scalded cats.
Millions of Russians lost all their savings in 1998 during a giant financial and monetary crisis. Thanks to Kozlov, savings up to $8,000 will be reimbursed if a bank goes bust. That's a lot of money here.
But people's growing trust in banks after the reform is something worth even more to the national economic welfare.
Before he was shot dead, Kozlov wanted to take on an even more Herculean task: Slashing away the red tape that makes opening a savings account here a Kafkaesque exercise in bureaucratic humiliations, multiple signatures, notary publics and frowning tellers — all for the pleasure of letting a bank handle your rubles.
It's not often that the death of a banker, even a central banker, makes such ongoing headlines. Most analysts say the reforms Kozlov spearheaded were so far-reaching that they are now, largely, irreversible.
But the shock felt at his death must surely reflect the sentiment that he was a unique man, a standout in today's Russia. It also underscores the notion that there are still forces at play in this country that want it morally, at least, bankrupt.