, or any of thirteen others facing Swiss money laundering charges in connection with fraudulent Kremlin construction contracts. The Swiss asked the Russians for help in July. They are still waiting for an answer.

The scheme under investigation looks like a garden-variety public-works-contract-kickback operation. Officials in the Kremlin’s property office allegedly entered into a series of sole-source contracts with Swiss firms to renovate Russian government buildings. The property office overpaid and the firms kicked backed to the Russian officials. But this description does no justice to the scale and complexity of the undertaking.

We are talking big bucks here. The property office does more than put little inventory tags on the furniture. It manages by some estimates $600 billion (not million) in assets that the Russian state took over from the Soviet state and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1991-1992. It is by all accounts the largest enterprise in Russia, and its scams are correspondingly grandiose.

The Russian press has published a letter from the investigating magistrate in Switzerland to Russia’s prosecutor general that hints at what the Swiss have learned in two years of probing. Readers should feel free to insert the word “allegedly” at appropriate intervals in the ensuing paragraphs.

Two Swiss companies, Mabetex Construction and Mercata Trading and Engineering, received hundreds of millions of dollars in Kremlin contracts, at rates several times higher than what other Western firms would charge for comparable work. Mercata, for example, held Kremlin property office contracts valued at $492 million. Payments to Mercata were passed on to companies like Lightstar Low Voltage Systems Limited, in the Isle of Man, which received $65 million from Mercata in 1997. Lightstar disbursed and dispersed the loot among various recipients, including the account of Winsford Investments in the Banca del Gottardo in Switzerland, the account of Somos Investments in Swiss bank SBC, the account of the Amadeus Foundation in Panama and other accounts in the United Overseas Bank in Nassau, Bahamas.

The head of Mercata,