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MOSCOW-The battle for the lucrative right to sell TV airtime may have led to the slaying of Russian TV personality Vladislav Listyev.

Mr. Listyev died instantly last week after being shot twice with a handgun in the entryway of his apartment building here, in what was immediately labeled a contract killing.

"It seems crystal clear" that the killing was linked to advertising, the head of a Western agency's Russian branch said in an interview, refusing to be named because it was "too dangerous."

The popular Mr. Listyev was named earlier this year as executive director of Russian Public Television, created by President Boris Yeltsin when he ceded a 49% stake of the state-owned Ostankino network to private shareholders.

The move catapulted Mr. Listyev into the heat of a scuffle between the network and a small group of Russian ad agencies that had gained exclusive rights to sell airtime on the nationwide channel.

Mr. Listyev and others at the network were moving to get rid of the middleman companies, and the Western ad executive said those companies-led by the Premiere SV ad agency-were prepared to kill to defend their interests.

"A stance was taken, in part by a chap [Mr. Listyev] who is no longer with us," the Western agency executive said of Russian Public Television's attempts to seize control of airtime sales by setting up its own company, Reklama-Holding, for that purpose.

"That stance was answered by what [some] call a `display of strength'*" with the murder, the executive said.

Shortly after Mr. Listyev was shot to death, Russian Public Television Chairman Alexander Yakovlev indicated the advertising struggle killed the 38-year-old.

Mr. Yakovlev said he, Mr. Listyev and Reklama-Holding officials had received threatening telephone calls since last week, when Russian Public Television announced it would temporarily halt all advertising. That move was widely interpreted as a sign the network was taking a breather to rid itself of the middlemen (AA, Feb. 27).

Mr. Yakovlev indicated the middleman companies had robbed the network of some $6.8 million a month in fees from advertisers. "We got in somebody's way," he told the Itar-Tass news agency. "If before Reklama-Holding, the centralized fund of Ostankino was receiving [$1.1 million] a month, and after the innovations the sum grew to [$8.1 million], some bigwigs were putting the difference in their own pocket."

"Money was going offshore; Ostankino was not getting all of it," the Western agency executive agreed. "Premiere SV was skimming a lot."

Russian Deputy Chief Prosecutor Oleg Gaidanov, the head of the office spearheading the murder investigation, threw fuel onto the fire of speculation that the airtime conflict was the motive in the killing, directly mentioning "very interesting documents" involving advertising as possible clues to the crime.

Investigators had "a letter from 10 advertising agencies in which they, in our opinion, sought to impose upon Mr. Listyev their position, which was distinct from his," Mr. Gaidanov said.

Even before the deputy prosecutor made his vague but incriminating announcement, Russian ad executives rushed to deny involvement and warn the press and public that law enforcement agencies and the government would seek to pin the murder of the well-liked Mr. Listyev on the advertising world.

In comments to the business daily Commersant, Premiere SV Director General Vladimir Zhechkov rejected links between "the struggle for advertising time" and the murder.

"It can be rejected because the incident is damaging to all firms operating on the advertising market," Mr. Zhechkov said. "After Listyev's killing, there will be a mess on the advertising market and many will get suspicious of us, many clients will stop deals with us."

The Russian Advertising Council, a trade lobbying group composed of agencies and advertisers, issued a statement saying ad agencies would never kill anyone and vaguely accused politicians seeking control over Russia's airwaves.

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