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Oboronservis fraud probe goes on, but some key suspects may be set free soon

October 04, 2013, 16:25 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, October 10 (Itar-Tass) - While the high-profile case of fraud and embezzlement at the Defense Ministry-related Oboronservis joint stock company is snowballing, some key figures keep stunning the Russian public at large with impudent and daring behavior. The first suspect, arrested in connection with the row that cost Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov his post, may be out of custody soon. In the meantime, the law enforcers keep promising that all those responsible for the embezzlement of Defense Ministry assets will be properly punished. If the former defense minister will be among them is a question that wonders many.

Oboronservis, a commercial business entity subordinate to the Russian Defense Ministry, was established under a presidential decree in 2008 with the aim to relieve the military of non-core, economic functions. At first the general public welcomed the move, for it might seem that the military would at last be able to devote themselves entirely to their main duties. However, in the autumn of 2012 a big row flared up over numerous cases of embezzlement inside Oboronservis. Its top management was accused of machinations and fraud, committed in the process of divesting of the Defense Ministry’s non-core assets. Criminal proceedings were launched.

The Investigative Committee claims that Defense Ministry officials often selected the most lucrative of all of Oboronservis assets, plots of land and share packages, including those in Moscow. Then, mammoth budget funds were invested in these properties, which would eventually be sold at grossly understated prices to commercial entities affiliated with Oboronservis. Moreover, many facilities were purchased with money stolen from Oboronservis itself.

Two large-scale criminal investigations are in progress into fraudulent schemes inside the Defense Ministry - those concerning the Oboronservis company and the open joint stock company Slavyanka. A total of 25 criminal cases were opened originally to be eventually pooled into one. The investigators say the exposed damage has already exceeded 16 billion rubles. The probe is continuing.

Amid the Oboronservis row President Vladimir Putin in November 2012 dismissed Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

Many more instances of fraud and names of persons involved have been added to the Oboronservis case files since.

Oddly enough, some of those arrested may begin to be released from detention soon.

The custody of Maksim Zakutailo, the former general director of the Moscow military district’s Air Force warehouse, is to expire on October 31. The investigation is still in progress, so the man may be released automatically, without any intervention by a court of law or cooperation with the investigation, says the daily Kommersant.

However, it will not be an exaggeration to say that the former chief of the Defense Ministry’s property relations department, Yevgeniya Vasilieva (the dismissed Defense minister’s alleged lover currently under house arrest) is the front-stage star of the whole affair.

To keep her under house arrest further on the investigators will have to be through with the probe within a two-week deadline.

Vasilieva is accused of complicity in defrauding Oboronservis’s affiliates of over 360 million rubles. Also, she is charged with selling 190 million rubles worth of shares of the 31st Special Construction Institute at a grossly understated price.

When Vasilieva’s apartment was searched, the investigators confiscated nearly three million rubles, 51,000 precious stones, and 19 kilograms of gold and platinum. The whole collection, according to the investigators’ estimates, is about 130 million rubles worth.

In the meantime, what ordinary Russians find particularly outrageous is the repeated reports in the press of Vasilieva’s everyday life under house arrest. The woman has the right to three hours of outdoor strolls a day and she looks to be using the time quite sensibly and with great pleasure. A correspondent of the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily claims that she is often seen visiting boutiques and making expensive purchases. And at her huge luxurious apartment in central Moscow she enjoys the services of a cook and a housemaid.

That Serdyukov’s protégé is in the habit of living a lavish lifestyle is common knowledge, the daily says. A personal cook, a driver, a housemaid and a professional massage therapist and other servants provided her with every conceivable comfort. The costs of keeping the household staff were placed on the affiliates of Oboronservis - the defense construction company Oboronstroi and the armed forces’ Chief Logistics Support Directorate.

The name of the dismissed defense minister is now present in a number of criminal charges, however only in the capacity of a witness. The most intriguing question for all is whether his status of a witness will be changed to that of defendant.

At the November 30, 2012 meeting with State Duma factions Putin said that the investigation of corruption at the Defense Ministry was not a timeserving campaign and that all conditions for impartial investigation would be created.

In the middle of December 2012, when the wave of exposures of former senior Defense Ministry staff eased and some of the arrested (Yevgeniya Vasilieva and her friend and colleague, Yekaterina Smetanova) managed to negotiate milder restrictive measures for themselves, the daily Kommersant quoted sources in the team of investigators as saying that “certain political decisions regarding the case have been made, so there is no reason to expect the investigation will produce any stunning results.”

The chief of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, Kirill Kabanov, is quoted by the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda as saying “the probability Serdyukov may eventually face charges still exists, but regrettably it is very slim.”

“So far all the main accusations have been addressed to Vasilieva,” says the vice-president of the Strategic Communications Center, Dmitry Abzalov. “If she bears the responsibility for everything as a mediator, then the former Defense minister may escape a long jail term. On the other hand, it looks like some charges begin to be addressed to the Defense minister in person. The investigation appears to have certain intentions to reach as far as Serdyukov.”

The chief military prosecutor, Sergey Fridinsky, is emphatic. “It’s no use trying to make guesses and forecasts. Nobody has any intention to relieve anyone of responsibility. Everybody will be responsible for one’s actions. The investigation will scrutinize the affair in detail and a court of law will dot all the ‘i’s.”