Premier Viktor Yanukovych demanded answers from Ukraine's top police chief about the slaying of Maxim Kurochkin, as opponents seized on the killing and a series of other slayings to criticize Yanukovych's government.
Kurochkin, known as “Mad Max,” was shot in the heart Tuesday evening as he stepped out of a Kiev courthouse where he was on trial for extortion.
The shot apparently came from an attic window of a nearby building and seriously injured one of the officers escorting him. Witnesses said two men wearing black masks fled the scene.
The killing was not only shocking for its bold character – Kurochkin had repeatedly pleaded with the court to free him on bail, saying his life was in danger – it was also the latest in a string of assassinations and attacks against business leaders in the country.
Earlier this month, three other businessmen connected to Kurochkin were gunned down as they rode in a car, and another associate was shot dead last October.
Separately, two businessmen were killed in the eastern city of Donetsk and one in central Ukraine last year. And four other business leaders were attacked in the western city of Lviv.
Ukraine, like other ex-Soviet republics, saw a series of violent business disputes as property was divided up after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
But those disagreements have been largely resolved, leading some observers to suggest the new high-profile killings are linked to political instability following the 2004 Orange Revolution and last year's parliamentary elections.
Kurochkin ran an organization that supported the pro-Russian Yanukovych during the bitter 2004 presidential campaign and subsequent Orange Revolution protests that swept his pro-Western rival, Viktor Yushchenko, to the presidency.
Discontent among Ukrainians over the slow pace of change led to divisions among the Orange Revolution partners, causing them to lose parliamentary elections a year ago.
Yanukovych's party won the most votes, and he returned to the position of prime minister.
Yanukovych's opponents said the recent slayings showed the ineffectiveness of his government.
“There must only be two ways out from the session court: to go free or to go to jail, but not to go the cemetery,” said Viktor Baloha, Yushchenko's chief of staff.
Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko's party said in a statement that “Ukraine has returned to the early '90s when a majority of conflicts in business were solved with the help of guns.”
Authorities denied that Kurochkin's killing reflected an increase in violence – and insisted police were doing better at solving high-profile cases.
Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Kupyansky said there were 56 contract murders in Ukraine last year, 29 of which were solved.
In 2002, there were 54, with 15 solved. In the first three months of this year, there have been 11 contract killings, four of which have been solved.
Taras Chornovil, a lawmaker allied with Yanukovych, said it was absurd to blame the prime minister. “It's the same as blaming (President) Bush when a student opens fire” in a school in the United States, he said.
Kurochkin, a millionaire who owned vast properties in Ukraine, was arrested in November on charges of extortion after he allegedly demanded $10,000, a one-room apartment and a plasma TV from an acquaintance, according to Ukrainian media.
Kurochkin denied the accusations and said the case against him was fabricated.
The businessman claimed he had survived 18 assassination attempts, including a 2004 car bombing that seriously wounded his bodyguards.
Hours before Tuesday's shooting, he again asked the court to release him, but the court refused.
Police insisted they worked to protect Kurochkin, noting that 18 policemen were in the courthouse to provide security instead of the usual three.
Kupyansky said Kurochkin had not asked for special protection.