Regional Raiders Ignore Medvedev's Message

Tax and sanitary inspectors have never found anything irregular during their visits to Agrofirma Engels, but that hasn't stopped them from dropping hints to director Nikolai Motsny that the authorities of the Saratov region city of Engels would like a chunk of the firm.

Motsny's son Igor, a prominent Moscow lawyer, said his father has cancer and wants to sell his interest in the medium-size business. The problem is that the people trying to get it want him to hand it over for free.

Nikolai Motsny, 60, ignored their hints until May 17, when the police stopped and searched his car, during which they said they found a pistol, ammunition and empty cartridges.

They opened a criminal investigation and only released him after he signed an agreement not to leave the region.

The search came two days before Motsny was to leave for a Moscow hospital to undergo cancer treatment.

"My father has health problems, and the raiders know about it," Igor Motsny said. "They want to put pressure on him so his health gets worse and he gives up his business easily."

"Raiders" is the standard Russian term used for people or groups who use their links to corrupt officials to seize businesses illegally, often with the aim of acquiring prime real estate.

Nikolai Motsny's wife gained first-hand experience of how raiders operate, receiving a call three days after the search from a man who said her husband was in big trouble and that Moscow was a dangerous place for her son to live. "He told her, 'We can plant narcotics in your son's pockets,'" Igor Motsny said.

During his campaign for the presidency, Dmitry Medvedev described raiders as the "shame" of the country and called for them to be punished "harshly."

Since taking office, Medvedev has ordered the introduction of anti-corruption measures to protect small and medium-size businesses, and at the end of June, Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin submitted a plan for tackling the problem to the president.

Despite the talk and early measures in the anti-corruption campaign, raiders appear to be continuing their criminal activities undisturbed, especially in the regions, where businesses are more at the mercy of the local authorities than in Moscow.

"Local authorities are not taking the Kremlin's effort seriously. They believe that the fight against corruption will consist only of the arrest of a couple of street police officers," said Kirill Kabanov, director of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, an advocacy group. "They are cynical."

"Our bureaucrats are not afraid of anything," said Gennady Gudkov, the Duma deputy heading the legislature's working group on combating the raiders. "They are many in number and protect themselves with the paperwork they produce. They know how to use the weaknesses in the system to defend their interests."

The raiders often include former intelligence and police officers, lawyers and people with ties to well-placed state officials. On their payrolls are judges, prosecutors and bureaucrats at all levels. Through them, the raiders can order a search of a business, gather information about the owner, and falsify whatever documents they need to gain control of their target.

An estimated 50 percent of all illegal takeovers involve stores or office space. The raiders are usually interested in the property where businesses are located, which can be rented out at a significant profit or demolished to make way for the construction of larger, more modern buildings.

"We believe that officials from the city administration and law enforcement bodies — perhaps with the help of one of the shareholders — want to take my father's shares of the business," Igor Motsny said. "They are not interested in the firm itself, but in the properties."

Agrofirma Engels is a publicly traded company that owns two grocery stores, an open-air market and two warehouses. Motsny is one of the main owners, with a 30 percent stake.

The police were unable to prove that the weapons they said they found belonged to Motsny, and the criminal investigation was closed on June 16.

But the next day five Federal Drug Control Agency officers searched Motsny's office, saying a city resident had told them that Motsny sold him narcotics.

The inspectors said they found a substance in the office's bathroom that was likely heroin or another drug and opened another case against the businessman. Motsny had to sign new papers requiring him to stay in the region, thus postponing his cancer therapy again.

Meanwhile, Nikolai Motsny said people close to the local police and city authorities told him that the next step could involve charges of rape or tax evasion.

"My father is under so much stress because of the situation," Igor Motsny said. "He wanted to sell his part of the business because he is sick and he wants to retire, but [the raiders] want to take it for free."

There are no exact figures for how many raider attacks occur annually across the country, Gudkov said. The economics magazine Expert put the countrywide figure at around 70,000.

Part of the reason it is hard to gain an idea of the scope of the problem is a general lack of trust in the authorities. Few victims ever report their cases to the police, prosecutors or the Federal Security Service, because they believe officials are in league with the raiders.

But Nikolai Motsny did decide to fight. He wrote a letter of complaint to the Prosecutor's Office in Engels, but it officially refused to look into his claims. He also sent a complaint to the presidential administration, which replied on June 24 that it had sent a letter to the Saratov Regional Prosecutor's Office.

Igor Motsny said his father's experience had changed the way he feels about how things work.

"I studied abroad, but I never thought about staying there," he said. "I thought that here things were interesting, dynamic, but now I understand that very little depends on me. I feel defenseless."

"The authorities in Engels think that they are above everyone — that they can slip drugs into someone's pockets to take what he has," the younger Motsny added. "They don't care what Medvedev said. They believe they can do whatever they want. They feel untouchable."

"Now I understand why people, despite the fantastic wages they could receive in Moscow, decided to stay abroad," he said.

In calls on consecutive days to the office of Engels Mayor Mihkail Lysenko, a spokeswoman refused comment, saying the mayor was sick and that Deputy Mayor Tatyana Petrovskaya was in a meeting. The Engels Prosecutor's Office's spokesman Vyacheslav Belyakov said he could not comment on Motsny's case because he knew nothing about it. A spokesman for the Engels city police also refused to comment.

Both Kabanov and Gudkov said Medvedev's efforts were unlikely to be effective in fighting the raiders, because it was only one part of the much larger problem of corruption.

But they did suggest initial measures that could help the process.

"The media should be allowed to talk about the problem, but in Russia they are under the control of the governors and are only allowed to write about positive events," Gudkov said.

Kabanov said businessmen should organize themselves to support each other in the battle against raiders.

"When people hear about raiders, they think that it is something that only happens to someone else," Kabanov said. "They only realize the danger they pose when things concern them directly."