WILL THE FIRST BE LAST?…
When President Vladimir Putin promised last year that there would be one set of rules for everyone and that the Kremlin would would remain equidistant from all the country’s oligarchs, skeptics scoffed. They noted that while Media-Most founder Vladimir Gusinsky was indeed being taking off the chessboard and that even Berezovsky appeared to have been neutralized, other tycoons, like Roman Abramovich, Berezovsky’s erstwhile protege, were busy expanding their empires, taking over entire industries (as Russian Aluminum, the giant holding that Abramovich co-owns, has done) and even entire regions (like Chukotka, where Abramovich was elected governor).
This week, however, it suddenly looked as if Putin might make good on his pledge, when Sibneft, the oil company Abramovich is said to control, became the target of new criminal probes. While the probes involve allegations that the company faked oil shipments to CIS countries, which are exempt from value-added tax, in order to fraudulently ask the government for VAT refunds, investigators are said to be more interested in getting to the bottom of the murky circumstances surrounding Sibneft’s privatization, which was initiated in December 1995, at the start of the controversial loan-for-shares scheme, and consummated two years later. Investigators have reportedly already interviewed Gazprom-Media chief Alfred Kokh, who was head of the State Property Committee at the time of Sibneft’s privatization, and dusted off the files from an earlier Audit Chamber probe, which found that the winners of the auction for Sibneft–front companies reportedly connected to Abramovich and Berezovsky–should have paid $2.2 billion for the controlling share in the company, not $110 million. On May 29, Abramovich dropped by the Prosecutor General’s Office, apparently to answer a few questions.
Some media, meanwhile, reported that the Sibneft probe could hit Aleksandr Voloshin, the powerful Kremlin chief of staff, who during 1995-1997 headed a company that had organized special privatization auctions on the government’s behalf and had allegedly low-balled the price of shares in state enterprises. The chatter concerning Voloshin’s alleged privatization misdeeds coincided with a new round of rumors that he was about to be removed as Kremlin chief of staff. According to one, Voloshin would be replaced by Georgy Poltavchenko, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Central federal district and a fellow KGB veteran.
But not all the sceptics were convinced. The newspaper Vedomosti, for example, dismissed the new Sibneft probes as a Kremlin PR gambit. If the Kremlin had really wanted to limit Abramovich’s influence, the paper wrote, the law enforcement and regulatory agencies would have targeted his control of the aluminum market along with more recent acquisitions, which reportedly include auto factories and shares in the state airline Aeroflot–all of which, taken together, would appear to violate Russia’s antimonopoly laws.