Russia Charges Head of Oil-Rich Region With Organized Crime

  • Second arrest of regional leader this year; allies also jailed
  • Kremlin seen responding to rising public concern on corruption

The governor of Russia’s oil-rich Komi region, was arrested on suspicion of fraud and running an organized criminal group, the second regional leader to be jailed on allegations of corruption this year.

In addition to Governor Vyacheslav Gaizer, 48, investigators said they arrested or are seeking at least 14 top officials and businessmen from the region, accusing them of misusing their positions for personal gain. They worked with the Federal Security Service on more than 80 searches over the weekend, according to a website statement. Gaizer’s lawyer, Oleg Lisayev, said his client denies any connection to the alleged wrongdoing and is cooperating with investigators. If convicted, Gaizer could face up to 25 years in prison, he said.

The sweep in Komi was broader than in previous cases, which typically included only a few officials. The arrests were covered on state television, which highlighted the more than 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of jewelry and 150 watches, valued at $30,000 to $1 million each, that investigators said they seized. They also took documents on the legalization of more than 1 billion rubles ($15 million) of allegedly stolen assets, according to the statement.

“This is an unprecedented case -- they arrested a whole group of officials,” said Alexander Kynev, a specialist on regional politics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “It shows the situation is difficult and they needed to demonstrate that they’re fighting corruption and signal to the elites that they shouldn’t get overconfident in difficult times.”

Corruption Concern

Opinion polls show Russians, facing falling incomes amid recession, are increasingly concerned about corruption as the patriotic euphoria following last year’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea fades.

Russian authorities have been expanding probes of local government officials from the Far East to the Caucasus region after arresting in March Alexander Khoroshavin, who was the governor of the Sakhalin region, home to an island rich with oil and natural gas in the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan. He remains in jail pending trial.

Governors represent a convenient target for the Kremlin, which so far hasn’t imprisoned high-level officials. Russia ranked 136 out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2014 ranking of perceived levels of corruption.

Gaizer had won the Kremlin’s backing for re-election in 2014 and led the ruling United Russia party to victory in regional elections this month. Rich in oil, metals and wood, Komi is one of Russia’s wealthiest regions and hadn’t suffered the same funding problems that other, poorer ones had. Among those charged over the weekend were his deputy, as well as the head of the regional legislature and a former senator from the northern region.

‘Blood-Suckers’

“Now the post of governor has become a rather dangerous one. It’s high enough for demonstrating ’a real fight against corruption,’” Andrei Pertsev wrote in a commentary published by the Carnegie Moscow Center. “In addition, the federal clans have started fighting over the regions” as financial resources have grown more scarce, he wrote.

Kremlin officials have repeatedly vowed to crack down on corruption, but previous pushes have yielded few visible results. The pressure arising from a contracting economy and falling oil prices may lead the Kremlin to be more determined this time, at least when it comes to suspects at the level of governors and below, some analysts said.

“This is the second coming of the fight against corruption,” said Valery Fedorov, director of the state-run VTSIOM polling center. “The people rejoice when they see the blood-suckers put behind bars.”

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