Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 206

Just days after Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky accused Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s cabinet of being mired in corruption, officers from the Interior Ministry’s anti-economic crime unit arrested Grigory Koshel, deputy board chairman of the powerful Oneksimbank, as he boarded a plane bound for a holiday in Switzerland. Oneksimbank is part of the Interros financial-industrial group, which is run by former First Deputy Premier Vladimir Potanin. Koshel was charged with “large-scale theft” in connection with the “illegal appropriation” of a US$27 million stake in the Azot chemical factory, located in the northern Russian town of Cherepovets. The case goes back to 1994, when Oneksimbank purchased a 41 percent stake in Azot through a front company, in what critics charged was a fixed tender. The bank later acquired another 18 percent stake. It also, according to critics, failed to make good on the US$100 million it was obligated to invest in the chemical factory. In September 1997, the Interior Ministry brought criminal charges against the Oneksimbank front company which owned the Azot stake. The following month, investigators questioned Potanin, at that time Oneksimbank’s chief, about the case. An arbitration court eventually ordered that Azot’s shares be returned to the state. Last March, investigators removed documents concerning Azot from the offices of MFK, a Oneksimbank affiliate (Russian agencies, November 5; Moscow Times, November 6).

Potanin and the Oneksimbank empire have been allied with Anatoly Chubais, Russia’s privatization architect who twice served as the government’s economics tsar. When Chubais went to head the Kremlin administration in 1996, he chose Potanin to succeed him as first deputy premier. Earlier, in 1995, Potanin floated the controversial loans-for-shares privatization scheme, which was adopted by Chubais and then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Chubais’s eventual political marginalization began in late 1997, with a scandal involving a US$450,000 book honorarium which he and several allies received from a Oneksimbank-controlled publishing house. That scandal, along with the Azot case, was played up in media controlled by financier Boris Berezovsky and Most-Bank founder Vladimir Gusinsky, two of Oneksimbank’s biggest rivals.

It is unlikely that a top Oneksimbank official could have been touched while Chubais still held a top government post. (Chubais currently heads United Energy Systems, Russia’s electricity grid.) The current government’s motivation in arresting Koshel may thus have been to try and turn the subject away from Yavlinsky’s charges, and focus instead on corruption in previous governments. Indeed, Sergei Chernitsyn, head of Oneksimbank’s press service, called the arrest an “attempt at crude political pressure on our bank.”