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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Siberian Town Stands by Its Jailed Mayor

LENINSK-KUZNETSKY, Western Siberia -- Gennady Konyakhin, the town mayor thrown in jail after President Boris Yeltsin dubbed him a crook, has become an unlikely hero in this hardscrabble Siberian mining town.

Konyakhin's supporters say he was made a scapegoat in a desperate attempt by the government to show it is fighting the rising surge of corruption among elected officials. And they say he fell foul of entrenched financial interests in Moscow when he started clearing out corruption in the town.

With Konyakhin in jail and the investigation of his case apparently going nowhere, his backers are mounting a campaign to get him released. They have flown to Moscow to deliver a protest letter to Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and are even penning a letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Konyakhin's showdown with federal authorities began Sept. 23 last year with the publication in the Izvestia newspaper of an article alleging that he was involved in a series of local murders and was using his position as mayor to advance his business interests.

The article found resonance with Yeltsin, who is anxious to show that his repeated pledges to fight corruption within officialdom are producing results. An investigation was launched after an irate Yeltsin was shown slamming Konyakhin on national television, and the mayor was arrested in Moscow soon afterward.

Yeltsin dispatched a team of investigators drawn from the top ranks of the Federal Security Service, the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor General's Office to Leninsk-Kuznetsky. Even Vladimir Solovyov, the chief investigator in the case of the remains of Tsar Nicholas II, was hauled temporarily off the job and sent to Leninsk.

Four months later, the investigation has produced no tangible results. Chief investigator Sergei Idorov said Tuesday the probe was in its final stages, and he expects to present his findings to a judge in early March. Idorov denied that his investigators were under political pressure to convict Konyakhin and said all the work of the five-member investigative team would be checked by independent legal bodies.

"The president has an interest in this case," he said with a smirk. "I am confident about my work."

He hasn't convinced Vladimir Malikov, a prosecutor who has since set up a citizens initiative group to defend the mayor and what he says is the honor of the people of Leninsk-Kuznetsky. "I used to be a prosecutor for 30 years. I know you can buy anyone," he said.

Malikov contends that Konyakhin was arrested because he was politically naive. "He needed to work for a year and learn the political intrigues," Malikov said.

He says the case against the mayor, and the Izvestia article, were trumped up by powerful financial interests in Moscow who stood to lose out a campaign by the mayor to clean up the corruption-riddled coal business in the town.

Coal is Leninsk-Kuznetsky's lifeblood, with 80 percent of the town's 150,000 inhabitants employed in the industry. But middlemen -- often with criminal links -- cream off much of the profits and have forced Kuzbass coal up to an average price of $26 to $28 per ton, compared to $12 to $15 a ton for U.S. coal.

Konyakhin's supporters say he was planning to cut out the middlemen by setting up a trading house through which coal proceeds would be channeled directly to the government.

Malikov said Tuesday that the Izvestia article was ordered by Uneximbank, which owns a stake in the newspaper. He added that an unidentified official in the presidential administration was paid $400,000 and two Mercedes-Benz cars to ensure the article found its way onto Yeltsin's desk.

Izvestia has stood by its story, insisting that it was published purely on its journalistic merit.

While in Moscow Konyakhin has been written off as a crook by all but maverick nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in his home town the mayor is a hero.

His two criminal convictions -- one for falsifying documents on a car deal, and a second for hooliganism -- do not bother townspeople.

One former miner and Konyakhin supporter said Tuesday that the mayor believed the only way to restore order to the Kuzbass was by sidestepping the criminal structure that siphons off profits while miners go unpaid.

"We all knew what it meant when the Mercedes drove up to the mine," said the former miner, who gave his name only as Denis. "Everybody here knows about this, but nobody does anything about it."

Supporters portray him as an energetic man who successfully applied his skills as an entrepreneur to kick-starting the depressed Leninsk-Kuznetsky economy. In his brief tenure, they say, he initiated the building of a new school, renovated the main streets and highways, and made public transport free for children up to age 13.

"In only four months, he did so much for us," said unemployed teacher Alla Yepisanova.

For now, Konyakhin is locked up in cell No. 1 at the pretrial detention center in nearby Kemerovo, where he shares quarters with three former policemen under investigation for murder. His backers say he has been allowed no visitors, and two representatives of the Orthodox Church have been refused access to him.

If convicted of all charges, Konyakhin faces up to 15 years in prison, with the confiscation of his property.

Malikov and others are lobbying for Konyakhin to be released on bail pending trial. Malikov and two other members of the citizens' initiative group flew to Moscow last week to deliver an open letter to Yeltsin's daughter, Dyachenko. Attached was a petition for Konyakhin's release from custody signed by more than 12,000 locals.

"How can a president publicly declare someone a criminal when he hasn't even been charged yet?" Malikov said Tuesday.