ESSAY: Local Officials See Corruption as Enterprise

It is the season for arrests of local officials in the Kursk region of southern Russia for abuse of position and suspected bribe-taking. In June, prosecutors arrested two deputies of the region's governor, Alexander Rutskoi, the fiery former Russian vice president who led the bloody coup attempt in 1993. Shortly afterward, a criminal case was started against his brother, Mikhail Rutskoi, the deputy chief of the region's militia.

Other recent arrests of less prominent officials have already been heard in court and sentences passed. They include a local head of the tax inspectorate, the head of the administration of the Manturovsk region, and one of the Kursk police's senior investigators. Most recently, I witnessed the conclusion of the case against Vyacheslav Belenkov, the head of the administration of the Kursk region's Solntsevo district.

This is a case so riddled with twists and turns that it would be possible to produce a fine detective novel from it. The Kursk region's chief prosecutor, Nikolai Tkachyov, who rose to fame after signing the warrant for the arrest of the two deputy governors, goes as far as to recommend the case history as instructive reading for Russia's white-collar criminals.

In a pause before the court hearing, Belenkov told me about his remarkable friendship with businessman Nairi Avakyan, who was also sent to prison. "Yes, I've known Avakyan for 14 years," he said in his booming bass voice. "We live on opposite sides of the road in Solntsevo, our families are close."

"Later, when he found himself in trouble, he tried to hide behind me," Belenkov said. Avakyan said much the same about his former patron, claiming that Belenkov drew him into his nefarious dealings so as to have a fall guy to take the rap later on.

Before matters reached their dramatic climax, their relations were idyllic. Belenkov would play chess with Avakyan's elderly father, and still speaks highly of Avakyan's wife and even about Avakyan himself, describing his former friend as "enterprising and determined."

"As far as I knew, he only had one conviction," Belenkov added repentantly. "I should have been a bit more careful about who I was mixing with."

It seems unlikely, however, that as the head of the local administration and after 14 years of acquaintance, he could have failed to learn of the other four convictions, including charges of fraud and theft, or realize that his friend's enterprise and determinedness were inseparable from his blind lust for profit.

Both did in fact know exactly what they were doing. Together they perpetrated scams involving wagonloads of maize, wood, fuel and other commodities, using notes of guarantee provided by Belenkov, money from the local budget, and setting up third parties as debtors while they split the proceeds fifty-fifty.

In the crowning achievement of their partnership, Belenkov arranged himself credit and bought 1,500 tons of diesel fuel from a company in Moscow. The investigation later revealed that the director of the local oil depot where the fuel was delivered was obliged to take a storage fee from Belenkov, who subsequently threatened him with closure if he insisted on payment -- which he did. And so the depot was closed down with the help of the fire brigade and by citing hastily drawn-up documents. It remained closed for two days, until the regional government stepped in and let it reopen.

But the victory was Belenkov's because he never paid the depot a kopek. Moreover, he went on to sell his diesel oil for cash to local consumers. By trading in liters, not kilograms, he ensured there were many tons of leftover oil that were then sold to such consumers as the local hospital, which was instructed to pay Avakyan. A nice round sum drawn by the hospital from the regional budget subsequently appeared on Avakyan's bank account.

Belenkov was a member of the old nomenklatura, with many years of service in various regional Communist Party committees and, most recently, as chairman of the legislative committee of the Kursk regional Duma. He was not motivated by any personal financial difficulties -- far from it. Among other things, Belenkov owned a large farm that was at first registered in his son-in-law's name, and later in his daughter's. He was also one of the founders of a local bank, and owned an apiary with 80 hives, again registered in the name of relatives. His subordinates were coerced into participating in deals with Avakyan. If anyone resisted, threats ensued. "Do you want to work or not?" he would demand of female bookkeepers, unwilling to put their signature to documents. Or he might laugh: "My signature's not on that yet? That means they are still persuading me." The letter of the law was a fiction, because he considered himself to be the law.

Belenkov never saw any need to disguise his business relations with Avakyan, and jetted off to Cyprus without a moment's hesitation when his partner invited him there to celebrate receipt of one fat rake-off from their operations. Taking the opportunity to mix pleasure with business, the partners got together with new Russian acquaintances made on the island and set up the next job, a lucrative car deal. This, their last joint operation, didn't pan out because Avakyan was arrested upon his return to Russia.

At first proceedings took the standard Russian course: for a year the investigation was bogged down in a swamp of confusion and misleading statements provided patiently by Belenkov. At first, he failed to understand that although he may have started as one of the case witnesses, he was fast becoming one of the main suspects. Then he really began to worry.

The case against Belenkov took up almost 40 volumes and involved almost 100 witnesses filing through the court to give testimony. He was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison, Avakyan to six. The prosecutor said the episode was characteristic of the situation in many of Russia's regions, where high office has grown together with the criminal world because of the opportunities of enrichment, and camouflages its activities as pseudo-market relations.

"With the help of all the Avakyans, officials like Belenkov are pumping their pockets full of money from the budget," Tkachyov explained. "By following Belenkov's example, people are throwing themselves into a downward spiral in pursuit of gain, while others, appalled by such goings-on, demand that an iron hand be exercised, a return to a totalitarian regime. The law must at least be upheld."

Of course, the law would be far easier to uphold were it not for the traditional notion that prevails among so many of Russia's leaders that to be enterprising is the same as knowing how to get around the law. Evidently, a lot more careers will founder before we get that fallacy straightened out.

Igor Gamayunov is a staff writer for Literaturnaya Gazeta newspaper. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.