Russia continues to be rocked by purges of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, where deputies (often called “senators”) represent regional governments.
On May 14, Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council, dismissed four members of the Council. The ousted senators represented a northern region (Nenets autonomous okrug), two Siberian regions (Yamal-Nenets autonomous okrug, and Khakassia), and a region in the Far East (Primorsky krai). After some local resistance, regional parliaments approved Mironov’s decision (see EDM, May 25). However, it soon became clear that more resignations were in the pipeline. On June 2, Senator Levon Chakhmakhchyan was arrested by officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB) on charges of bribery. Chakhmakhchyan represents Kalmykia, a region in southern Russia is and vice-president of the Association for Russian-Armenian Business Cooperation. Chakhmakhchyan and Igor Arushanov, chief accountant for the Association, were arrested at the headquarters of Transaero Airlines. FSB officers confiscated a bag containing $300,000, which they claimed was a bribe.
Chakhmakhchyan was arrested after meeting with Alexander Pleshakov, the chairman of the Transaero board of directors. The senator said that he had visited Pleshakov “to discuss a Transaero advertising campaign in Armenia and Transaero’s possible membership in the Association” (lenta.ru, June 5). After the meeting, Pleshakov told the senator to take a bag sitting under the table; Chakhmakhchyan thought the bag contained souvenirs for him. FSB officers were waiting outside and detained the senator and the accountant as they left the office.
Speaking to Ekho Moskvy radio on June 5 Chakhmakhchyan said, “As soon as the two of us were out of Pleshakov’s office, we were stopped by FSB officers. The reasons for the detention were not given. My demands for release and the arguments that I am a member of the Federation Council were ignored. The agents behaved rudely and cynically, used physical violence, treated me with contempt, including [making] comments of nationalistic nature. Only two and a half hours later was I released.”
According to the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, the money confiscated from Chakhmakhchyan and his associate were part of a bribe to an official in the Russian Federation Board of Accounting to close a case of tax evasion against Transaero. Armen Oganesyan, Chakhmakhchyan’s father-in-law, works at the Board, so the senator had suggested to Pleshakov that he could assist in solving the problem for Transaero. Pleshakov, however, complained to Sergei Stepashin, chairman of the Russian Board of Accounting, that Board officials had blackmailed him.
Stepashin got in touch with FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, who ordered a special operation to arrest Chakhmakhchyan and his father-in-law. Chakhmakhchyan was released due to his immunity as a member of the Federation Council, but the next day proceedings were initiated at the Federation Council to withdraw his mandate. On June 5, Mironov’s press service issued a statement saying that the speaker had sent a representative to the parliament of Kalmykia recommending that Chakhmakhchyan be recalled from the Federation Council before his term expired (Interfax, June 5).
Despite the accusations of corruption, many observers and politicians in Kalmykia and in Moscow regarded the attack on Chakhmakhchyan as an attack by the central authorities on Kirsan Ilumzhinov, the president of Kalmykia. According to Kommersant newspaper, Chakhmakhchyan and Ilumzhinov are close friends, and Chakhmakhchyan helped Ilumzhinov during the 2002 presidential elections in Kalmykia, which the latter won despite resistance from the Kremlin. In 2004 the Kalmykian leader returned the favor by helping Chakhmakhchyan to be elected by the local parliament to represent Kalmykia in the Federation Council (Kommersant, June 5).
“One can only regret this unpleasant accident,” Ilumzhinov said, commenting on the arrest of Chakhmakhchyan. “I believe that the guilt of the senator should be proved by the court.” At the same time, the Kalmykian president added, “I have no grounds not to trust Sergei Mironov. If he demanded the senator’s recall, it means he had grounds for this.” However, Ilumzhinov also stressed that Chakhmakhchyan’s guilt should be determined in court and he also pointed out that the senator “did a lot of useful things for Kalmykia” (strana.ru, June 6).
Apparently Ilumzhinov does not have enough power to help his old friend this time. He is under great pressure from the Kremlin himself. The Russian authorities regard the Kalmykian leader as a too independent regional governor. Moscow thinks that maverick governors such as Ilumzhinov could be a problem as the Russian parliamentary and presidential elections approach. President Vladimir Putin’s administration is not sure that such governors will guarantee a “correct vote count” during the elections.
The Kremlin was especially enraged by the Kalmykian leader’s recent meeting with Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion and the leader of the United Civic Front, a radical, democratic, anti-Putin organization. On June 4, Ilumzhinov was reelected chairman of the World Chess Federation. In his interview with Sport Express, Russia’s leading sports newspaper, Ilumzhinov thanked Kasparov for providing help in the elections (Sport Express, June 7). This statement was a direct challenge to the Kremlin, and the Kalmykian leader flaunted his independence by mentioning Kasparov.
The arrest and firing of Chakhmakhchyan may prove to be the Russian authorities’ first steps in an anti-Ilumzhinov campaign. However, there are no doubts that the campaign will not be easy, since the president of Kalmykia has proven to be a formidable adversary for the powerful Kremlin bosses.