Ben Aris in Berlin -
Maxim Kurochkin, Russian businessman and friend of the Ukrainian prime minister, was shot by a sniper Wednesday as he left court in Kyiv where he was facing extortion charges.
Kurochkin is a notorious figure in Ukraine. He heads the so called Russian Club, a collective of businessmen, analysts and journalists that support a pro-Russian line for Ukraine, which rallied voters to Yanukovych's flag in the 2004 presidential elections and the March 2006 parliamentary elections.
However, he also has a dodgy business reputation and was nicknamed "Mad Max" by associates. He repeatedly asked for bail after being arrested on the Ukraine border last year, claiming he would be murdered if he remained in custody. Kurochkin claimed to have survived 18 attempts on his life.
A sniper on the roof of a nearby building shot Kurochkin has he left the court building. A policeman was also seriously hurt in the shooting. This is the first murder of this type in Ukraine and Russia's ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, quickly arrived on the scene to call for a full-scale investigation as Kurochkin is a Russian citizen.
The killing will hardly do anything for strained Russia-Ukraine relations and also highlights Yanukovych's grey past. The prime minister was also arrested on assault charges in his youth, charges that have since been wiped from his record.
"The killing of businessmen, shady suicides...give every ground to say that Ukraine has returned to the early 90s when a majority of conflicts in business were solved with the help of guns," opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko's party said in a statement.
There has been a flurry of shootings recently. Other fatal shootings include two businessmen killed in the eastern city of Donetsk and one in central Ukraine last year, as well as four attacks on prominent business leaders in the western city of Lviv. In all there were 56 contract killings in 2006, of which 29 were solved, and since the start of this year there have been another 11 contract killings, of which four were solved.
Analysts speculate that the killings are a function of the power battles going on behind the scenes after the Orange Revolution upset the previous balance of power.
Kurochkin was a multi-millionaire and owned significant real estate in Ukraine, including a stake in the Hotel Ukraine.
"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, chief-of-staff for President Viktor Yushchenko.
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