New Siloviki Customs
Published: June 27, 2006 (Issue # 1181)
When Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov was dismissed on June 1, some argued he had been too aggressive in his campaign against corruption, others that he had been too soft. But the reason for Ustinov’s resignation was mundane. President Vladimir Putin had selected First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his successor, but the siloviki clan led by Ustinov and Igor Sechin, the presidential administration deputy chief of staff, decided that Ustinov was the man for the job. Ustinov was pushed out of his job because his clan had become too powerful.
Last week, Sergei Zuyev, owner of Russia’s largest furniture retailers, Tri Kita and Grand, was arrested on charges of tax evasion. It’s a sign of the times. It began as an ordinary turf war between Mikhail Vanin, who was customs chief until mid-2004, and the man once expected to replace him, Yury Zaostrovtsev, head of the Federal Security Service’s economic security department.
In an attempt to hold on to his job, Vanin demanded the companies involved in smuggling furniture into the country for Tri Kita double what they were paying the customs service to legalize their shipments. But when his agents approached the companies, they got the brushoff. Vanin’s boys figured that Zaostrovtsev was backing the smugglers. They opened a criminal investigation and sold the confiscated furniture for a song to their own companies.
What happened next was something else. Interior Ministry investigator Pavel Zaitsev, who headed the original case against Zuyev, was put on trial for abuse of office. Sergei Pereverzev, Zuyev’s former business partner and a witness in the case, was shot dead in an apparent contract hit. State Duma Deputy and journalist Yury Shchekochikhin, who was looking into the Tri Kita affair, died in a suspected poisoning. Moscow City Court Judge Olga Kudeshkina, who acquitted Zaitsev, lost her job.
And Putin knew everything. He even appointed his personal investigator, Vladimir Loskutov, to work on the case, which already involved a dead witness, a poisoned Duma deputy and a jailed investigator. So what happened? Not much. Nearly everyone who pressured the Prosecutor General’s Office to close its original probe into Tri Kita in July 2002 — for lack of evidence — was also a player in the assault on Yukos.
Now the case against Tri Kita has been reopened. Some have even suggested that Ustinov’s ouster was related to the case. As if Loskutov, after four years of investigative work, finally discovered the truth and reported to the president.
The Tri Kita case is extremely significant, because the words “Kremlin” and “murder” have rarely been found in such close proximity. But in terms of Kremlin infighting, Tri Kita is nothing out of the ordinary. In May, a Moscow court banned all operations and trading in preferred shares of pipeline monopoly Transneft, citing an ongoing investigation. Heads rolled in the corruption-ridden Federal Customs Service, and the tax authorities went after state-owned long-distance provider Rostelecom.
The renewed investigation into Tri Kita was not an excuse to get rid of siloviki associated with the case. It is indicative of the changing situation in this country. The so-called power vertical has been completed, and now those who built it are being purged. The original Tri Kita case posed a threat to the very foundation of the power vertical. The new case is just business as usual.
It’s all about business. Why should the new boys in charge of customs leave anything for their predecessors? Tri Kita is even better than Yukos in this regard. After all, who’s going to shed a tear if people like Zuyev are locked up?
Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.