Last week, the Russian police agency responsible for tackling organized crime landed a big fish. At 5.00 a.m. on June 2, 150 GUBOP officials raided 15 locations, arresting four top officials from the State Fisheries Committee. Aleksandr Tugushev was appointed deputy head of the fisheries agency last fall. On March 18, Tugushev was chosen to head the commission that will supervise the transformation of the committee into the State Fisheries Agency, under the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade. He is now accused of taking US$3.7 million in bribes in December 2003 from the Khabarovsk-based Polluks firm in return for promising a 50,000 ton crab and pollack quota. The company paid Tugushev but was not granted the quota. In contrast to previous years, when quotas were awarded through auctions, they are now allocated by committee, and Tugushev apparently did not have the power to deliver. Polluks reported Tugushev to the police, although some fish specialists raised doubts about the government’s case. (Kommersant, June 3, June 7, Vremya Novostei, June 3).
The Russian fisheries industry, a US$3 billion a year business, is notoriously corrupt. Catches are often delivered to foreign factory vessels on the high seas, far from the prying eyes of tax and customs officials. Also, fleet operators in distant ports, such as Vladivostok, Kamchatka and Murmansk form a tight-knit community. The problem stretches back to Soviet times. In 1978, Deputy Fishing Minister Vladimir Ritov was arrested, and shot, for smuggling caviar. The fish mafia is also implicated in the October 2002 murder of Magadan Governor Valentin Tsvetkov. Investigations in the wake of the Tsvetkov murder led to the sentencing in April 2004 of Yurii Moskaltsov, former deputy head of the fisheries committee. Moskaltsov was sentenced to four years in jail for bribe-taking in the allocation of crab quotas in the sea of Okhotsk (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, June 4).
Yevgenii Nazdratenko, long-time governor of the Far Eastern Primorskii province, was deeply implicated in many nefarious dealings. But to the astonishment of observers, rather than having him arrested, Russian President Vladimir Putin relieved Nazdratenko of his post as governor in 2001 and proceeded to appoint him to head the State Fisheries Committee. Given the recent arrests, it is easy to see what kind of job he was doing at the agency. Nazdratenko was removed from the Fisheries Committee in April 2003, but once again he was promoted, this time to the post of deputy secretary of the Security Council. Nazdratenko’s charmed life is somewhat baffling, but provides much fuel for conspiracy theorists. Corruption is inefficient and unfair. But taking steps to eliminate corruption can open up a Pandora’s box, exposing cozy relationships and business practices, and threatening the precarious political and economic stability that has been the main achievement of recent years.