Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 194

In what appears to be a related development, the Prosecutor General’s Office confirmed yesterday that it had filed criminal charges against Nikolai Aksenenko, Russia’s railways minister, an erstwhile Berezovsky protege who was once viewed as a possible successor to Boris Yeltsin. Aksenenko was summoned to the Prosecutor General’s Office on Friday (October 19), charged with abuse of power and asked to sign a pledge not to leave Moscow. The following day, Aksenenko denied reports that he had either resigned as head of the Railways Ministry (MPS) or signed a pledge not to leave Moscow. He said further that he would sue NTV television for reporting as much. He also claimed that he had simply been summoned to the Prosecutor General’s Office as a witness in a case involving malfeasance at the MPS, and said that he would bring up the issue with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov this week. The Prosecutor General’s Office, however, confirmed yesterday that Aksenenko had been charged with abuse of office, adding that the fact the minister had refused to sign either a document outlining the charges against him or a pledge not to leave Moscow did not change the fact that he had been charged. The office added that it had already interrogated people in connection with the case, including six of Aksenenko’s deputies. Aksenenko continued to defend himself yesterday, charging that unnamed persons had initiated the accusations against him in order to halt reform of the MPS and to “discredit state power.” He was openly challenged, however, by Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of the Kremlin, who criticized him for running to the government for help rather than appealing the actions of the Prosecutor General’s Office “according to the law” (Kommersant, October 23).

The specific charge against Aksenenko was that he had illegally authorized the expenditure of US$2.3 million–a charge stemming from an investigation by the Audit Chamber, the independent federal watchdog agency. The Audit Chamber found, among other things, that three of Aksenenko’s deputies and the head of the MPS’s finance department had received apartments ranging in price from US$461,200 to US$886,700 (see the Monitor, June 28). Other findings by the Audit Chamber, however, suggest MPS corruption on a much larger scale. Indeed, a newspaper reported yesterday that last year the Railways Ministry transferred 52.8 billion rubles (approximately US$1.88 billion) to the bank accounts of certain “funds” set up under MPS auspices, with the result that 30 percent of this sum–more than US$500 million–was spent “totally arbitrarily” (Vedomosti, October 22). According to other reports, the MPS failed to pay 11 billion rubles (some US$370 million) in taxes it owed last year. In addition, the Prosecutor General’s Office reportedly questioned Aksenenko about missing funds from the government’s program to purchase and ship fuel and other necessities to remote regions of Russia’s Far North, in which MPS has participated (Vremya Novostei, October 23).

Observers were split over whether all of this means that Aksenenko’s removal from office and criminal prosecution are imminent. The new Gazeta web newspaper–GZT.ru, not to be confused with Gazeta.ru–quoted an anonymous high-level source as saying that the attack on Aksenenko was a result of President Vladimir Putin’s absence from Moscow (he was attending the Shanghai summit meeting of Asian and Pacific leaders). The source was quoted as saying that one of Moscow’s political groups used Putin’s absence to mount a “psychological attack” on Aksenenko and force him to resign, but that this was unlikely to work given that the MPS chief is a born “fighter” (GZT.ru, October 22). Other media suggested that oligarchs in the powerful Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) lobbying group were simply trying to force Aksenenko to accept their approach to MPS reform, which Aksenenko has been resisting. Interestingly, one of the leading critics of Aksenenko’s ideas for MPS reform, Oleg Deripaska–founder of Siberian Aluminum, co-owner of the giant Russian Aluminum monopoly and head of the RSPP’s working group on reforming rail transportation–appeared with Aksenenko at a press conference yesterday. He denied that he was behind the case against the minister. Their joint appearance followed a RSPP roundtable meeting devoted to MPS reform. Aksenenko, for his part, yesterday indicated for the first time that he supported the idea of having the oligarchs sit on the government’s commission for railways reform (Vedomosti, October 23). Still other observers speculated that Aksenenko’s removal as railways minister was a foregone conclusion, and could happen even today (Vremya Novostei, October 23).

Indeed, it may be that Putin has decided to move more decisively against members of the Yeltsin-era “Family” such as Berezovsky and Aksenenko. On the other hand, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov denied yesterday that there was any link between the case against Aksenenko and the issuing of an arrest warrant for Berezovsky (Moscow Times, October 23).