Saratov’s chief prosecutor, Anatoly Bondar, announced on May 14 that criminal proceedings have been instituted against the region’s governor, Dmitry Ayatskov, for abuse of power connected to the alleged misuse of 70 million rubles (US $2.4 million) in budgetary funds. Accusations against Ayatskov, who was first elected Saratov governor in 1996, date back to August 1998, when the Saratov regional administration purchased U.S.-made Case combine harvesters for Oblast
Food Corporation, a company under its control.
The company was unable to pay US$7.3 million in customs duties on the equipment because of Russia’s financial crisis that month. Then-Deputy Satarov Governor Sergei Shuvalov eventually ordered that 70 million rubles from the regional budget go toward paying off part of the unpaid duties, while the federal government wrote off the balance.
In January 2002, the regional prosecutor’s office charged Shuvalov with exceeding his authority in disposing of budgetary funds without consulting the regional legislature. While Shuvalov faced a possible 10-year prison sentence, he was elected to the regional Duma in September 2002, thereby securing immunity from prosecution. In December of that year, the Saratov Regional Court ordered the case against Shuvalov closed.
Regional prosecutor Bondar appealed that decision to Russia’s Supreme Court. But his bid to continue the case against Shuvalov was rejected (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 17; RIA Novosti, May 15; Kommersant, May 14-15; Interfax-Volga, Ekho Moskvy, May 14; NEWSru.com, Jaunary 25, 2002).
Bondar has now targeted Ayatskov, on grounds that Shuvalov could not have authorized customs payments from the regional budget without the governor’s approval. On May 13, investigators from the regional prosecutor’s office seized documents from Ayatskov’s office. The governor was ordered to appear for questioning on May 14, but the interrogation was postponed until May 17.
Ayatskov did appear at the regional prosecutor’s office in May 15, but refused to answer any questions prior to being formally charged. Bondar said on May 16 that Aytsakov will be charged within 10 days and has been told not to leave the region.
Bondar said investigators are also looking into the legality of the transfer of ownership of a Saratov city rubber factory “to the governor’s close relatives.” An aide to Bondar said investigators are also looking into other activities by Ayatskov’s administration, such as extending of loans to staff (Interfax, May 14-15; Moscow Times, May 17)
Ayatskov claims that the case against him is politically motivated: “The Shuvalov case collapsed, and a new political scandal is needed,” he told reporters on May 14, accusing Bondar of either planning to back a candidate or run in Saratov’s next gubernatorial election, set for April 2005. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio, Ayatskov charged that Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov had personally ordered the criminal investigation. The governor said he had not had “the best relations” with Ustinov since voting against his candidacy as prosecutor general in the Federation Council in May 2000 (Gazeta, Moscow Times, Kommersant, May 17).
According to some observers, there is merit to Ayatskov’s allegation that the case against him is politically motivated. “Given that the case was essentially taken from the archives, that means someone needed it,” said Vladimir Alkhimenko of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of State and Law. “There are elections there [in Saratov – EDM] in a year, therefore the prosecutorial raid should be seen as a hint” (Novye Izvestia, May 17). Some observers suggested that the Kremlin might back Deputy State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a former deputy Saratov governor who fell out with Ayatskov, to replace him as Saratov governor (Kommersant, May 17)
Meanwhile, there are signs that moves against Ayatskov may be part of a broader crackdown on governors and other officials. Prosecutor General Ustinov said during a meeting of law-enforcement officials in Russia’s Far East in Khabarovsk on May 15 that the most effective way to fight corruption is to step up “criminal repression” of officials.
“Officials are very inventive and without fail find ways to conceal their abuses,” Ustinov said, adding that the results of the work of law-enforcement agencies this year and last year show that only an “imitation” fight against corruption is taking place.
Ustinov indicated that his office has issues with Far Eastern governors, particularly concerning the heating and electricity shortages that have occurred in various Far Eastern regions each winter for the last several years. “As long as all issues connected to preparations for the upcoming winter are not resolved, not one prosecutor from [regions] where there are problems in this sphere will go on summer vacation,” Ustinov said. The prosecutor general noted that criminal proceedings have been instituted against Kamchatka Governor Mikhail Mashkovtsev (Itar-Tass, Interfax, Rosbalt, May 15).
In March, Mashkovtsev was charged with abuse of power for issuing an order permitting unlimited fishing in 2002.