The top deputy chairman of Russia's Central Bank died Thursday, hours after being shot by unidentified assailants in an attack that officials suggested was prompted by his efforts to clean up the country's banking system.
Andrei Kozlov, the bank's first deputy chairman, died hours after he was hospitalized in critical condition following the shooting late Wednesday, Moscow prosecutor's office spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko said.
Kozlov's driver was also killed in the attack, which Russian media said was carried out by two gunmen who fled after the shooting. It occurred outside a sports arena where bank employees were having a soccer game.
Contract murders like this one were common during the days of go-go capitalism under President Boris Yeltsin, according to CBS News Moscow Bureau Chief Beth Knobel. But this is the first assassination of a high ranking government official under President Vladimir Putin.
Vice Premier Alexander Zhukov said the shooting was likely linked to Kozlov's duties, and suggested the possibility of a connection with the Central Bank's revocation of licenses of unreliable commercial banks, the Interfax news agency reported.
Kozlov had been responsible for banking supervision, and had overseen an ambitious program to reduce criminality and money laundering in the banking system.
"His steps to cleanse the (banking) system and to build a normal, civilized system apparently strongly encroached upon somebody's interests," the head of the Association of Russian Banks, Garegin Tosunian, told Ekho Moskvy radio.
Kozlov, 41, had been the Central Bank's first deputy chairman since 2002 after first holding that position from 1997-1999.
His work had made him a potential target for the owners of the hundreds of unsound or criminal banks operating in Russia, and he had frequently been the target of smear campaigns in Russian newspapers and on Web sites.
Kozlov's death has also sent shock waves through Russia's financial community, Knobel reports. Just when Russians were starting to think that the business landscape had become civilized — that companies are working out disputes through courts and lawyers — it turned out that some people are still using guns and bullets to settle their scores.
Kozlov's most conspicuous achievement had been the introduction of a deposit insurance program designed to restore faith in the banking system after widespread defaults in 1998, in which many Russians lost their savings.
At Kozlov's initiative, bank licenses were revoked and others were effectively earmarked for closure when they were denied access to the deposit insurance program.
"He was someone who was very committed to making Russia part of the global economy," Jennifer Buttenheim, an American working in Moscow who knew Kozlov, told Knobel. "He never compromised his integrity, and that is what killed him. We worked together on a project, and when he saw that it was not what it was supposed to be, he resigned."
Anatoly Chubais, a former prime minister who is now head of electricity monopoly RAO Unified Energy Systems and survived an assassination attempt last year, called Kozlov "an unquestionably honest, principled and absolutely noncommercial person."
"His killing is an impudent challenge to all Russian authorities," Chubais said in a statement.
Tim Ash, an analyst with the investment firm Bear Stearns, said the shooting was a direct affront to Putin's government and threatened a return to the violence that plagued Russia's chaotic business world following the 1991 Soviet collapse, Dow Jones Newswires reported.
"We would expect Putin to set the resolution of this case as an absolute priority for the country's security services," Ash was quoted as saying. "Failure to apprehend the killers would send a signal to others that intimidation of government officials is once again an option."