The Mysterious Mr. Isakov

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Recently, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on investigations of the U.S. Senate essentially accused Russia of receiving bribes from Saddam Hussein in exchange for lobbying for the Iraqi dictator's interests in the UN Security Council. Moreover, the congressional investigators announced they had discovered that Iraq handed over around 90 million barrels of oil to Putin's presidential administration. This oil, they claimed, brought the administration almost $3 million.

The subcommittee's report named two figures in connection with these transfers: Alexander Voloshin, who was President Vladimir Putin's chief of staff at the time, and Voloshin's "close friend," a certain "Sergei Issakov." This Issakov, according to the report, was Voloshin's trusted confidant and envoy who also worked in the presidential administration.

Voloshin responded to the assertions about his so-called friend by insisting that, "no person of this kind ever worked in the administration of the president. He was never my friend or my envoy, if he even exists at all. I have no idea who this person is."

So, who is this mysterious Sergei Isakov, whose last name is unlikely to contain a double "s"? To all appearances, the investigators had the following man in mind, though he never worked in the presidential administration, or at least not officially. It is unclear if he ever had any relation to Voloshin. But he did have a connection to oil and to Hussein's lobbyist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDPR.

Let's take a brief look at Isakov's biography. He was born in the town of Mtsensk in the Oryol region in 1961. He graduated from the Arkhangelsk Naval School and the All-Soviet Legal Correspondence School. Starting in the late 1980s, he got involved in commercial business in the Oryol region, and then in 1991 he became the vice-president of Oryol-Avia airlines.

The year 1993 saw the first direct elections for the head of the Oryol regional administration. The front-runner in the election was the former first secretary of the Oryol regional party committee and the former agriculture secretary of the Soviet Central Committee, Yegor Stroyev. He was running against a Yeltsin protege, Nikolai Yudin.

Isakov's company, Oryol-Avia, paid for a 20-minute film promoting Stroyev, titled "The Leader." In April 1993, Stroyev won by a landslide, taking 52.9 percent of the vote, while Yudin garnered 34.2 percent. Delighted, Isakov bragged about his accomplishment left and right, claiming that Stroyev should thank him personally for becoming governor.

Soon afterward, Isakov's company had its registration revoked, and in December 1993 Isakov was arrested and charged with financial misconduct.

No one really knows exactly what happened between Stroyev and Isakov. Maybe Stroyev was not pleased that a local businessman had tried to capitalize on his electoral victory. Or perhaps, on the contrary, the federal authorities whose plans were thwarted by Stroyev's win decided to do a number on his big campaign sponsor. Or maybe Isakov was indeed guilty as charged and was ratted on by some competitor.

Whatever the case, Isakov was jailed for a while but then released. His relationship with Stroyev soured soon after that.

Isakov joined Zhirinovsky's LDPR and became the party's regional coordinator. He ran unsuccessfully for a State Duma seat in 1995, losing to Communist Alexei Zotikov. In 1996, he acted as Zhirinovsky's personal envoy during the presidential election. He made an attempt to get onto the gubernatorial ballot in Oryol in 1997, but the election commission, which likely answered to Stroyev, refused to register his candidacy. This rejection sent shock waves all the way to Moscow. The entire LDPR Duma faction caused a major stir in October 1997 by getting up and leaving the legislature in protest of the commission's decision.

Isakov did not turn up in the limelight again until 1999, when he became the deputy general director of the Rosavia Consortium, an industrial and financial corporation.

In the same period, he joined the board of directors at Nafta-Moskva, a Moscow-based oil company. That same year, he tried again to make it into the Duma on the LDPR ticket, but failed once more.

The head and co-owner of Nafta-Moskva, Suleiman Kerimov, whose company became one of the biggest sponsors of the Liberal Democrats about the same time, was elected to the Duma in 1999, and then again in 2003.

The other Nafta-Moskva co-owner, Akhmed Bilalov, was also elected to the Duma as part of the pro-Putin party, Unity. He was re-elected in 2003, this time as a member of United Russia, of course.

It is amusing that Zhirinovsky, a rabid Russian nationalist and patriot despite his Jewish roots, was happily sponsored by two Muslim oil magnates from Dagestan.

As a rule, sponsors in Russia do not donate to political parties out of personal conviction or political sympathies. They are marching to the beat drummed by the Kremlin. Those who ignore this rule will face a fate similar to that of former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

But let's get back to Iraqi oil and Hussein.

Isakov opened a business in Iraq, the Russian Engineering Company, and traded equipment and machinery for oil as part of the UN oil-for-food program. He told Vedomosti that his activities were completely legal.

In the end, God only knows if Voloshin actually received oil from Hussein. And no one knows for sure if and how Zhirinovsky and Isakov were involved in the alleged deal.

The U.S. investigators could have gotten their story mixed up, of course. Just the way they got confused about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, for instance.

But perhaps the folks at Nafta-Moskva might have been able to enlighten the senators as to who exactly the mysterious Mr. Issakov was and what his role in the oil deals with Hussein was.

Vladimir Pribylovsky is president of the Panorama think tank. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.