Yury Shchekochikhin, the State Duma deputy and deputy editor of the biweekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has been put under protective guard along with his family after receiving threats connected to an article by him that appeared in the paper’s February 18 edition. In that article, Shchekochikhin, who is deputy chairman of the Duma’s security committee and a member of Yabloko, claimed that a criminal investigation by the Prosecutor General’s Office was ended after members of a criminal group paid unidentified officials in that office US$2 million to close the case (NTV.ru, Yabloko.ru, February 19).
Shchekochikhin’s accusations are connected to allegations that two leading Moscow furniture outlets, Tri Kita (Three Whales) and Grand, evaded import duties by falsifying the weight and purchase price of the goods they had imported. Last August, the State Customs Committee (GTK) confiscated millions of dollars of furniture from Tri Kita’s warehouse, which was returned after the two stores’ head, Sergey Zuyev, paid the GTK US$2.5 million of US$5 million in fines. The stores subsequently won several lawsuits against the GTK. Last November the Prosecutor General’s Office charged two top GTK officials, Marat Faizulin and Alexander Volkov, with abuse of power. Last month the Prosecutor General’s Office questioned Mikhail Vanin and Boris Gutin–the GTK’s head and deputy head, respectively–about the committee’s alleged abuse of power in probing and fining the two furniture stores.
According to some observers, the case has a political subtext. Last October, Kommersant, citing unnamed sources in the government, reported that among the co-founders of the Tri Kita and Grand furniture stores were “firms belonging to the father” of Yury Zaostrovtsev, a deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB). Zaostrovtsev is reportedly in charge of organizing relations between President Vladimir Putin and big business and a leading member of the “Chekists” faction within the Kremlin. Some observers believe the battle between the FSB and the Prosecutor General’s Office, on the one hand, and the GTK, on the other, is part of an ongoing fight between the Chekists and the “Family,” the Kremlin faction made up of Yeltsin-era holdovers, including Vanin (Moskovsky Komsomolets, January 26; RBK, January 25; Moscow Times, January 24; see the Monitor, November 29, 2001).
In his February 18 article in Novaya Gazeta, Shchekochikhin quoted from what he said was a letter from Pavel Zaitsev, an Interior Minister investigator who had been part of the team probing the original contraband charges against Tri Kita and Grand. Zaitsev said the sale of the contraband furniture through the two stores, which had cost the state US$20 million in unpaid customs duties, had been carried out by an “international criminal association” based in Moscow that had “corrupt relations with the highest echelons of power” and whose leaders, “using employees of the Prosecutor General’s Office, took all possible measures to halt the investigation” and to discredit both the investigators and the evidence they uncovered. Ultimately, members of this criminal group paid unnamed officials in the Prosecutor General’s Office US$2 million to close the case, Zaitsev claimed (Novaya Gazeta, February 18).
Over the years, various members of Novaya Gazeta’s staff have reportedly been threatened for their work. Most recently, Anna Politkovskaya, the paper’s Chechnya correspondent, left the republic while investigating alleged murders of civilians by Russian forces after receiving a warning she should leave immediately. Politkovskaya left Russia for a time last year after receiving threats related to articles she had written (see the Monitor, February 11, 13).
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