November 06, 2009

MOSCOW -- Of all the strange, colorful and often dangerous characters that traversed Russia's turbulent transition to a market economy in the 1990s, few had a more extraordinary biography than Shabtaivon Kalmanovic, a real-life International Man of Mystery who bankrolled the most expensive women's basketball roster in the world.

Construction magnate, concert promoter, collector of Judaica, convicted KGB spy -- Kalmanovic was tough to classify. In recent years he gained renown in the West for spending part of his fortune building a women's hoops dynasty in the Moscow suburbs with no intention of turning a profit, lavishing WNBA stars likeSue Bird and Diana Taurasi with pay and perks unprecedented in the women's game.

While Kalmanovic made no secret of how he spent his money, far less was clear about how he made it. He was, after all, a true hold-over from what, in the supposedly staid era of VladimirPutin's Russia, are referred to as the "Wild 1990s," a decade when opaque fortunes were made and lost and made again overnight and when business deals were as likely to be sealed with Kalashnikovs as with handshakes.

And it was almost certainly his murky business dealings that prompted a pair of hit men this week to pump 18 bullets into Kalmanovic, killing him instantly as he sat in the passenger seat of his Mercedes, several hundred yards from Putin's office in central Moscow.

"There is no doubt that this was a contract murder," Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russia's chief investigative body, said in televised comments. "The investigation is looking into several possible motives, of which the primary version is that Kalmanovic was murdered in connection with his business activities."

No suspects have been detained in the slaying, though investigators are hoping Kalmanovic's driver, who was seriously wounded but survived the attack, can give them a lead. Unconfirmed media reports claim investigators found $1.5 million in Kalmanovic's car.

In the days since Kalmanovic's slaying, the Russian media has been scrambling to dig up any possible motive for the crime. Theories have ranged from his possible role in helping Russian slot hall owners adjust to a recent gambling ban to his purported cozy relationship to notorious Russian mob boss Vyacheslav Ivankov, who died last month from injuries sustained in a sniper attack this summer.

Kalmanovic's friends and colleagues have been indignant over media speculation about his alleged ties to criminals.

"The media is trying to link him to business that he long had nothing to do with and shady connections that never existed," Russian singer Losif Kobzon told reporters Wednesday following Kalmanovic's wake at the stadium of the businessman's club, three-time defending Euroleague champion Spartak Moscow Region.

Kobzon -- the Soviet Frank Sinatra who was denied a U.S. visa in 1995 for alleged ties to organized crime but has denied any mob links -- was one of dozens of political, show biz and sports luminaries to pay their final respects Wednesday, including Lithuanian hoops legend Arvydas Sabonis, Soviet hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak and Soviet pop diva Alla Pugachyova.

Kalmanovic was laid to rest Thursday in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv.

Contract murders remain a disturbingly common business tactic in Russia, and particularly vulnerable to such attacks are those who continue to run their affairs 1990s-style, eschewing contracts in favor of informal agreements with business partners, said Vadim Volkov, an expert on organized crime at the European University in St. Petersburg and author of "Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism."

Born in Soviet Lithuania in 1949, Kalmanovic emigrated with his parents to Israel in 1971 and claimed he subsequently made his first fortune in construction in South Africa. (He denied rumors of his alleged involvement in African diamond trafficking). In 1988, however, he was convicted of passing on Israeli state secrets to the KGB and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

He secured an early release in 1993 and made his way to Russia, where he became involved in concert promotion -- bringing acts like Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli and Tom Jones to Russia -- as well as philanthropy and his lifelong obsession, basketball.

Together with Sabonis, he financed the Lithuanian club Zalgiris Kaunas, which captured the 1999 Euroleague title with former NBA players Tyus Edney, Anthony Bowie and George Zidek.

With Kalmanovic's free-spending ways at Spartak Moscow Region in the town of Vidnoye, just south of Moscow, players like Bird, Taurasi and Lauren Jackson could make many times over their WNBA salaries.

Club sports director Steve Costalas was reluctant to discuss life after Shabtai at Spartak so soon after Kalmanovic's death, though he said the governor's office of the Moscow Region had promised to continue its support for the team. It would be difficult to imagine, however, the regional administration doling out money for the type of salaries Kalmanovic had been paying his top players.

In addition to financing and running Europe's top women's club, Kalmanovic was general manager of Russia's formidable women's national team. He was busying himself with hoops in the final hours of his life and gave no impression of concern for his business affairs or personal safety, said Russian Basketball Federation president Sergei Chernov, who met with Kalmanovic hours before his murder.

"He was completely calm," Chernov said. "We talked about basketball, he was telling jokes. There was no indication whatsoever that he was worried about anything."

Chernov and other friends and colleagues say they have no idea who might have wanted Kalmanovic dead.

"He was continuing with life as he always did," Costalas said. " ... He never had a bodyguard in his life, never used a bulletproof car, not for his family, not for his office. He never carried a gun."

Indeed, Kalmanovic was unusually casual about his personal safety for someone who had for so long navigated post-Soviet capitalism.

American businessman David Watts, head of the Moscow-based Global Sports Consulting, said he was struck by the lax security in a meeting at Kalmanovic's office earlier this year. Meeting Russian tycoons face-to-face, after all, can often involve security arrangements evoking Checkpoint Charlie.

"It was a pretty open environment," Watts said. "There weren't any heavy security checks when we met him. He didn't seem like a man particularly concerned with his safety."

Kalmanovic explained his laid back approach to security to a Russian newspaper earlier this year: "There's no one for me to be afraid of."

There was, however, a small exception.

"There are no window's in my office -- that's just a simple precaution," he said. "It's just safer that way."

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