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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Police Jittery Over Mavrodi as Lyonyas Unite

It may have been a first in a country never renowned for putting concern about the prisoner's good treatment above all else.

At a briefing at Moscow police headquarters that bordered on the surreal, a small army of officials faced the press on Wednesday, apparently with the sole aim of reassuring the public that detained MMM president Sergei Mavrodi was alive, well and eating.

"He does not like the food we are offering," said Andrei Stepantsev, chief investigator in the Mavrodi affair, denying reports that the prisoner has gone on a hunger strike. "But his health is not in danger."

Seven officials from the Moscow tax police, militia and prosecutor's office were tight-lipped about details on the actual case against Mavrodi, who is being held in a cell at Moscow police headquarters on suspicion of tax evasion, but has not yet been charged.

The silence prompted one exasperated reporter to shout: "What is this press conference for?"

Stepantsev said Mavrodi's refusal to give evidence was making it hard to build a case against him. But the answer to the reporters question seemed clear. Fearing widespread social backlash from the MMM investment company scandal, the authorities have sought to downplay their role in the collapse of MMM's reputed pyramid scheme, in which millions have lost their savings.

"We are not touching MMM, and will not touch them for now, because of all the excitement in society," said Vladimir Senin, a top tax police official who said that the investigation of Mavrodi concerned only one of MMM's shell companies. "Tell the people that no one has shut down the activities of MMM."

As if to confirm the authorities' worst fears, leaders of a new political movement called the MMM Shareholders Union announced Wednesday that 20,000 MMM shareholders living in Moscow have already joined their group, which is dedicated to securing the release of Mavrodi.

The union, formed 10 days ago outside MMM headquarters on Varshavskoye Shosse in southern Moscow, says it has organizing committees in 40 large Russian cities and it is planning daily protests in Moscow starting Thursday.

"We are the Lyonyas," Viktor Vasiliadi, one of the group's leaders, told a press conference Wednesday, referring to Lyonya Golubkov, the Russian get-rich-quick Everyman featured in MMM commercials.

But Vasiliadi said the union has more far-reaching goals than defending Russia's most notorious company president from what they believe is a government crackdown against free-marketeers.

"We consider it part of the government's incipient attack on the market and freedom. MMM is just the first company to suffer from it," said Vasiliadi, who said he holds 47 MMM shares.

Vasiliadi said the group plans to seek the support of investors in Russia's other private firms.

Group organizers said the union was more than an amorphous crowd of desperate people camping out in front of the MMM office. Vladimir Stolypin, one of the organizing committee's three co-chairmen, was a top official of the Democratic Party of Russia, which has a minority faction in the State Duma.

"We want to set up an extensive, well-coordinated structure and then we will be armed against any attempts by the government to dupe us," said Stolypin, who owns 200 MMM shares. He added the new group was seeking support from existing political forces.

Although Stolypin did not say with which parties he would like to cooperate, he did not hide his nostalgia for the past.

"I am a citizen of the Soviet Union, that's what my passport says, and no one has replaced it yet," he said. "Great Russia is being torn apart, either by mistake or by some malicious intent."

Ironically, the Shareholders' Union is about to form an alliance with a group that welcomed the Soviet Union's demise. The Living Ring Alliance, formed by people who defended the Russian White House against the 1991 coup plotters, plans joint action with the Shareholders Union, Vasiliadi said.

He said leaders of the two groups planned to meet Wednesday night to discuss common strategy for the anniversary of the abortive coup, which began Aug. 19 and ended Aug. 21, 1991.

The Shareholders Union is planning a rally in front of the Moscow Police Headquarters on another anniversary which will take place Thursday -- MMM President Sergei Mavrodi's birthday.

After the MMM president was arrested, the offices buying and selling shares have been closed on the company's initiative, though officials have since said there are no legal obstacles to reopening them.

Stolypin supported MMM's decision to keep the offices closed.

"How can the company work if the man who makes all the decisions and generates all the ideas has been put behind bars?" he said. "That would be a slow death for the company."