While the murder of a businessman is hardly news in Russia, the death of the head of a private security company in St. Petersburg on September 24 has raised eyebrows. According to press reports, Roman Tsepov, general director of the Baltik-Eskort private security firm, had felt sick for two weeks, but doctors were unable to find the cause of his illness. He was subsequently hospitalized in grave condition, and while doctors had planned on sending him to Germany for treatment, the condition had already infected his bone marrow and was untreatable (Delovoi Peterburg, September 24). The St. Petersburg prosecutor's office has launched an investigation into his death, which they are treating as a premeditated murder.
Russky kurier, citing the St. Petersburg-based Agenstvo Zhurnalistskikh Rassledovanii (Agency for Journalistic Investigations), reported that somewhere around September 10 or 11, Tsepov was poisoned with "a large dose of medicine used for treating leukemia patients (Russky kurier, September 27). The Stringer information agency had earlier cited rumors that Tsepov had been poisoned by a heavy metal: "The poison is among experimental chemicals, and access to it is severely restricted." Stringer said that Tsepov's case resembled that of Ivan Kivelidi, the influential businessman apparently poisoned to death along with his secretary in 1995 (Stringer-news.ru, September 25). Indeed, Saratov Governor Dmitry Ayatskov stated that Kivelidi's killers had used a top-secret modern chemical substance from Shikhany, a major Russian chemical weapons storage facility located in Saratov (see "Preventing the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism: The Case of Russia," Disarmament Diplomacy, Issue No. 20, November 1997).
Whatever the substance that killed Tsepov, his death has drawn attention because, by all accounts, his influence and ties went well beyond his immediate business. "Officially, Tsepov headed one of the best protection agencies in Petersburg," NTV television reported. "Unofficially, he had influence and interests in many spheres of business and even in the power structures" (NTV.ru, September 25).
Kommersant was even more explicit about Tsepov's purported web of contacts. "His sphere of influence was very wide -- from pharmaceuticals and protection service to ports, tourism, shipping, insurance, and even the mass media," the newspaper wrote. "According to sources in the law-enforcement organs, Roman Tsepov kept in touch with many siloviki, from Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev to the head of the presidential [security service] Vladimir Zolotov. It is said that he was in well with deputy presidential administration chief Igor Sechin and even Vladimir Putin himself. In UBOP [the anti-organized crime directorate] it is said that Mr. Tsepov actively used those contacts to resolve business issues and also carry out delicate errands for a number of very highly placed persons. In addition, it is said that Roman Tsepov used his connections to lobby for the appointments of Interior Ministry and FSB [Federal Security Service] officers. It was precisely because of this that one of his nicknames within certain circles was 'the Producer' " (Kommersant, September 25).
Moskovskiye novosti reported in July that Tsepov had presented himself to Yukos shareholders as essentially having been commissioned by Sechin, Zolotov, and even Putin to "come to terms" with the embattled oil company. "As soon as the 'Kremlin representative' asked for a big advance on his services, his powers were called into question. Tsepov's former relationship with Zolotov and Sechin and possibly also with Putin is a hard fact, but the level and quality of his present-day contacts is, basically, a matter of speculation" (Moskovskiye novosti, July 9).
Following word of Tsepov's death, the journalist Yulia Latynina said on her Ekho Moskvy radio program that Tsepov had reportedly told Yukos that he represented Sechin's interests and had full authority to resolve the conflict with the company as long as he and Gennady Timchenko were put on Yukos' board of directors. Britain's Telegraph has described Timchenko as "a Kremlin insider and oil trader" who shares a KGB past with Putin and is "very close" to the Russian president (see EDM, July 28). Latynina said, "But what's interesting is that when I was told this story -- and a lot of people told me it -- I had the impression that Mr. Tsepov . . . didn't understand that this [deal] is for others, and that, in essence, these people didn't need a representative in the person of Mr. Tsepov" (Ekho Moskvy, September 25).
The Stringer information agency quoted from a dossier on Putin that it first reported about in November 2000. The dossier was allegedly prepared by the FSB, then added to by the Interior Ministry's investigative department under Vladimir Rushailo, currently the CIS executive secretary. The dossier alleged that Tsepov, who in the early 1990s was an officer in the St. Petersburg police's anti-organized crime directorate and in charge of collecting license fees from casinos, acted as a go-between for a monthly payment from a leading casino owner to Putin, who was then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. The dossier also claimed that in 1995, Tsepov gave Putin's wife a Chinese emerald he had won in a card game with a criminal boss, who had stolen it in South Korea. The emerald was reportedly included on an Interpol list of stolen gems. "Tsepov renders services to Putin on condition that the latter will 'protect' his activities," the dossier alleged (Stringer-news.ru, September 25; Stringer, November 2000).
Tsepov's Baltik-Eskort provided protection during the 1990s for the family of then-St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak and for his deputy, Vladimir Putin. It also protected a variety of VIPs from other walks of life, including the crime boss Vladimir Malyshev (Russky kurier, September 27).