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29 November 2016

Chieftains on trial

Worldly trial is apt for ordinary citizens while trial by ordeal is left for bosses

Soviet-era Russian rulers (Vladimir Lenin and Nikita Khrushchev) were quite loyal not only to elites found guilty of embezzlement but even those who openly opposed them. Not many members of the proletariat opposition (in favor of enterprises being run by trade unions instead of the Communist party) who were defeated during the 11th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (of Bolsheviks) were expelled from the party in 1922. Opposition leader Alexander Shlyapnikov was sent to France as a trade representative. Lenin did not execute those who fiercely opposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, either. Members of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who openly opposed Khrushchev at the 1957 plenary meeting were demoted to lower-ranking positions: Vyacheslav Molotov was appointed ambassador to Mongolia; Nikolay Bulganin – head of the council of the national economy in the Stavropol Krai; Georgy Malenkov – head of a power plant in Kazakhstan.

This was not purely down to the benevolence of rulers. It set an important precedent: a representative of the elite is untouchable and can live in peace, no matter what. Take the example of Khrushchev who was not murdered but allowed to retire in peace in the aftermath of his unsuccessful battle for power in 1964. Of course, there were other examples, too, in which a dictator arbitrarily eliminated his own associates in a bid to quench his thirst for absolute power and in order to send out a clear message. There is good reason to believe that, like Stalin, Yuri Andropov may have also taken this path. Andropov launched the large-scale “Uzbek case” against the highest-ranking officials of the Soviet republics during the short year of his rule. As a result, former Minister of the Interior Nikolay Shchelokov shot himself after having been demoted and having experienced all phases of disgrace; he was expelled from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, stripped of the rank of the army general as well as all of his commendations, and expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

There were only a few cases in which high-ranking officials were prosecuted under Yeltsin, if one disregards the 1993 events (although members of the elite who succumbed in the brief civil war were also amnestied and released six months later). Deputy head of the income tax authority Vladimir Panskov was arrested in 1993 before being released on his own recognizance six months later, and the case was closed within a year. First Deputy Minister of Finance Vladimir Petrov was arrested in September 1998. He was accused of taking a bribe in return for the issuance of a loan to a bank which had gone bankrupt. Vladimir Petrov was released on his own recognizance six months later. The case was closed after two years as, according to an expert opinion, Petrov’s signature had been forged on the loan agreement (although some believe that it was rather the expert opinion which was illegitimate). Two former governors (of the Vologda and Tula Oblasts) were arrested. However, the incumbent governors, who were members of the Federation Council at the same time, had never consented to their colleagues’ prosecution. The most high-profile case of the Yeltsin days was the case of the former acting General Prosecutor Alexey Ilyushenko who was arrested in February 1996. He was accused of taking bribes in the form of cars in exchange for favors. Ilyushenko, sick with tuberculosis, was released on his own recognizance after spending two years in prison. His case was slated for further investigation and was discontinued under Putin. Minister of Justice Valentin Kovalyov, dismissed in 1997 in the aftermath of the bathhouse scandal, was arrested in 1999 on charges of theft of entrusted property (in relation to a charitable fund) and taking bribes. Kovalyov was released on his own recognizance in 2000 and given a nine-year suspended prison sentence in 2001. Given the almost total absence of acquittals in Russia, the suspended sentence amounts to little more than an acquittal in effect. Still, rare cases of criminal investigations involving public officials also occurred under Boris Yeltsin’s rule.

From the outset, Vladimir Putin put an end to outlaw governors when he came to power in 2000. This was achieved quickly through an amendment to the law ‘on the formation of the Federation Council’. Hence, the representative of a governor, and not a governor himself, became the member of the Federation Council to enjoy parliamentary immunity. As a result, governors themselves do not have immunity. This did not lead to mass imprisonments, though. Governors were kindly asked to “vacate their positions”. One man who was given this opportunity was the somewhat controversial Governor of Primorsky Krai Yevgeny Nazdratenko who achieved notoriety for having overseen electricity, heat and water shortages on his watch over a relatively rich region. Nazdratenko “resigned voluntarily” in the winter of 2001 and the then Russian Minister of Energy Alexander Gavrin was dismissed around the same time.

Despite the Yukos case, instigated in 2003, and the wave of repressions and harsh punishments of entrepreneurs that followed, public officials emerged unscathed. The case of former head of the Russian Federal Property Fund Vladimir Malin who was accused of embezzlement of shares in Murmansk Apatite along with a co-owner of Yukos Platon Lebedev serve as good examples of which. Lebedev was sentenced to 9 years’ imprisonment whereas Malin was given a 4-year suspended sentence.

The current criminal case against Alexey Ulyukaev is by no means the first case in which a high-ranking official has been prosecuted during Vladimir Putin’s reign. Let us recall three past cases against ministers: A criminal case against the then Railway Minister Nikolay Aksenenko was instigated in 2001. Aksenenko’s name was bandied about as one of the possible successors to Boris Yeltsin in 1999. (The then Speaker of the State Duma Gennadiy Seleznyov claimed that Yeltisin had told him that he had recommended Aksenenko for prime minister but a different name ultimately appeared on the nomination document). Aksenenko vacated his office voluntarily in 2002 and was allowed to go abroad to receive treatment for leukemia in 2003 although he had earlier been released on his own recognizance. However, the criminal case was not discontinued. Aksenenko died in 2005. Former Russian Atomic Energy Ministry Yevgeny Adamov was arrested in Switzerland in the same year on charges of bribe-taking. Since American citizens were involved in the case, the US demanded his extradition. The extradition of the ex-official – a man party to a Russian state secret –  to the US was extremely undesirable. Hence, the following ploy was implemented: Russia urgently instigated a criminal case against him and also requested his extradition from Switzerland. Eventually, Adamov was sentenced to 4 years’ probation for the embezzlement of nearly $100 million before the venerable citizen was appointed head of the Dollezhal Scientific Research and Design Institute of Power Engineering (NIKIET) which designs nuclear power plants. Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov was dismissed in 2012. Incidentally, similarly to Aleksey Ulyukayev, Anatoly Serdyukov was at loggerheads with Igor Sechin – the powerful, former Putin chief of staff during their days at the St. Petersburg mayor’s office as well as the incumbent head of the largest state-owned oil company Rosneft. Serdyukov dismissed Sechin’s protégé Roman Trortsenko from the post of head of United Shipbuilding Corporation six months prior to his own dismissal. At the same time, lawsuits were brought against a number of persons. A criminal case against former head of the Property Department of the Ministry of Defense Yevgeniya Vasilyeva who was charged with causing major property damage seemed most excessive. In addition, a criminal negligence case was opened against Serdyukov himself in 2013. However, everything ended well for the contemporary Bonnie and Clyde. As a case of low severity, Serdyukov’s case was dropped under amnesty on the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of the Russian Federation in 2014. Vasilyeva, who was under house arrest during the investigation, was sentenced to five years in prison, but since she had already spent half of her sentence under house arrest, she was released on her own recognizance a couple of months later.

Sentences of high-ranking siloviki are marked by unparalleled severity compared to punishments dished out to public officials. General Ganeev, the head of the Security Department at the Emergency Response Ministry, was arrested in 2003 and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment two years later following his conviction for establishing a criminal group. He has been released just recently. Malicious gossip has it that the popular Sergei Shoigu was thus removed from first place on the United Russia list prior to the 2003 election – he headed the list in 1999. Alexander Bulbov, head of the operational department of the Federal Drug Control Service was arrested in 2007. Despite intervention by his superior, former head of the St. Petersburg’s Federal Security Service (FSB) Viktor Cherkesov, Bulbov spent 2 years behind bars and was subsequently sentenced to a term of probation. Former head of the Interior Ministry’s Economic Security and Anti-Corruption Department Denis Sugrobov was jailed in 2014. His deputy Boris Kolesnikov leapt out of a window at the Prosecutor’s Office under mysterious circumstances. Both had previously been praised for their work on “sensational cases”. The story of their downfall is telling as they tried to recruit an FSB officer despite the existence of an unspoken rule according to which one is to report precisely to the FSB should evidence which compromises a given employee be uncovered. By some twist of fate, former head of all prisons in Russia Alexander Reymer ended up behind bars. According to the findings of an investigation, he embezzled funds earmarked for the procurement of ankle monitors. Several high-ranking officials of the Investigative Committee together with head of the Committee’s Internal Security Division Mikhail Maksimenko were imprisoned on charges of having links with the criminal underworld. An investigation is pending.

Alexey Ulyukaev (I am of the view that he has become a victim of a reprisal of Igor Sechin who traditionally sides with Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the FSB) is hardly likely to be jailed given that he is currently under house arrest and especially as the government’s supply of would-be ministers is running so low. Hence, Alexey Kudrin’s prediction, made a few years ago, regarding the ban on the ownership of foreign real estate by public officials and, in particular, the assertion that it would not be introduced, turned out to be correct. Had the ban been introduced, half of the government would have resigned. The establishment is a kinship under the Vladimir Putin regime and its members will not be severely punished for crimes other than betrayal of the head of state. Besides, they can stand up for themselves and so Russian civil society had better beware. 

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