Could it have been a Mafia hit? The local prosecutor says no, but that
hasn't stopped the speculation.
Palermo? New York City? South Philadelphia? Round up the usual places, but this is happening in Uzbekistan, a Central Asian Soviet republic of 20 million people that has "family" ties to rival any Cosa Nostra anywhere.
Investigators say the Mafiosi - a word that, like Mafia, has entered the Russian language - in Uzbekistan have been running the republic, through nepotism and patronage, for more than a decade.
"Even a fool starts to steal if his brothers are in important posts," said Raul M. Mir-Haidarov, author of the newly published Russian novel Strolling Through the Streets. He was interviewed in the Uzbek capital two days before the car crash that injured his spine and that might prove fatal to his wife.
And the Uzbek mobsters are no fools. Oleg Gaidanov, Uzbekistan's deputy prosecutor, said a three-year investigation had turned up 14 different
criminal families whose members had been proven responsible for more than 40 murders as well as related acts of "gangsterism, blackmail and robbery."
The Ministry of Internal Affairs says there are 160 "illegal millionaires" operating in the republic.
The corruption, investigators say, evolved from Uzbekistan's large and profitable cotton crop. Racketeers have bilked Moscow by falsifying production figures, passing off bad quality cotton for good and claiming false seed shortages to obtain more seeds. The racket was protected by payoffs to key republic and state officials, earning for organized crime in Uzbekistan the nickname of "the Cotton Mafia."
At least 100 Uzbek officials have been charged with corruption since 1983, and two have been executed. More than 3,000 local officials have been demoted, and 18,000 of the 650,000 Communists in the republic have been kicked out of the party. More than 4,000 police officers have been fired.
In the last several weeks, Akil Salimov, the former president of Uzbekistan, and two first secretaries of regional party committees, Ismail Dzhabbarov and Nazir Radzhabov, have been arrested for taking bribes. This is roughly equivalent to arresting the governor of an American state and a couple of big-city mayors.
Why is this happening? What makes Uzbekistan different from the other 14 Soviet republics? One reason is that most money in Uzbekistan comes from one source - the cotton crop. This monoculture, the source of more than 70 percent of the cotton in the Soviet Union, offers an uncomplicated and fertile ground for a conspiracy to defraud the state.
More importantly, Uzbek people have an traditionally close-knit family structure, abetted by the common bond of Muslim ancestry. Clans grew up, and relatives and friends all help one another to succeed.
"There were whole families with people in powerful positions," said Mir- Haidarov. "One clan controlled trade institutions, and others controlled agricultural insitutions. . . .
"In the United States, the Mafia started from the bottom and bought politicians," he said. "Our Mafia started from the top."
He was not exaggerating.
Until his death in 1983, Sharif Rashidov was the capo of corruption in Uzbekistan. He also was chief of the republic's Communist Party, a close friend of Leonid I. Brezhnev's and a nonvoting member of the Soviet Union's ruling Politburo.
Abduvakhid Karimov, former first secretary of a regional party committee in Uzbekistan, recently told the Communist Party newspaper Pravda that when Rashidov pinned the Hero of Socialist Labor star on Karimov's chest, Rashidov whispered: "These things are not given just for nothing."
"And I gave him money for the star," admitted Karimov, who has been convicted himself of taking bribes. Karimov was condemned to death, but the sentence has been commuted to 15 years in prison. "Once or twice a year Rashidov and his wife traveled all over the regions of the republic collecting tributes from us, the regional party secretaries," he said.
The Order of Lenin, the nation's highest award, could be had for 500,000 rubles (about $850,000), investigators say. Just as honor was for sale, so were senior party posts: The job of district first secretary went for 100,000 rubles or more.
After Rashidov's death - rumors circulated that he committed suicide when Brezhnev's successor, Yuri V. Andropov, launched an anti-corruption campaign - Inamzhon Usmankhodzhayev was named to lead the Uzbek party. He apparently inherited more from Rashidov than the party job. Last January he, too, was arrested on corruption charges.
In Moscow, eight key Uzbek officials have been on trial for the last three months. Their big-name co-defendant is Yuri Churbanov, Brezhnev's son-in-law, who is accused of accepting about $1 million in bribes during his tenure as first deputy minister of the interior.
One of Churbanov's patrons was the minister of the interior himself, Nikolai Shchelokov, who, as investigators came closer in 1984, methodically donned his uniform, put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. According to author Mir-Haidarov, Shchelokov was the godfather of the Uzbek mob.
Another key figure was a despotic collective-farm director named Akhmadzhan Adylov, a self-made "hero of socialist labor" who ruled three state farms and 30,000 workers like an old-style fedual lord.
According to various press accounts, Adylov branded workers with hot irons, whipped pregnant women and maintained an underground dungeon in which he imprisoned his enemies. Arrested five years ago, Adylov remains in a Moscow jail awaiting trial and a potential firing squad.
Novelist Mir-Haidarov is a bespectacled former engineer of 47 who has lived in Uzbekistan most of his life. He studied organized crime in a scholarly way, but spoke with emotion about how criminals had destroyed life in the republic. For the last several years, he has told friends that he was worried about his safety, and friends said he often carried a heavy stick with him.
His novel was published in September after nearly a year-long fight to get it in print.
"I'm writing about the present," he said before the suspicious auto accident. "Everyone is very careful."
Nevertheless, Strolling Through the Streets might soon be available in another medium. Vyacheslav Gvozdkov, who directs the prestigious Gorky Theater in Tashkent, is planning to adapt it for the stage.
Born in Leningrad, Gvozdkov came here four years ago and rapidly developed an appreciation for just how things work in Uzbekistan.
In an interview, he offered the example of families competing to stage the biggest possible weddings and plundering state coffers to pay the bills.
The explanation for this rampant corruption, he said, lies in the cultural leap that Uzbeks have had to make in this century. Traditionally, Uzbek people worked for large landowners under an almost medieval system. Under Soviet socialism, they found themselves working for the state - and theft from this impersonal entity didn't seem like theft at all.
"These are people who stepped from feudalism to socialism," said Gvozdkov. "Morally, they were unprepared."
The director also noted that biznes - another word that has entered the Russian language as a synonym for trade or capitalism - is not recognized by ethnic Russians as a moral way to earn a living. But the people of Uzbekistan, he pointed out, are not Russian.
"Things are different in Uzbekistan," he said, sounding like the Jack Nicholson character in Chinatown. "Here, one generation works for another."