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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: A Wolf in Unity's Clothing




Go say "hi" to First Deputy Governor Konstantin Tolstoshein. Go on. He's right there on the edge of the demonstration of unpaid workers - the second-ranking official in the Far Eastern Primorye region.


He's the guy with the weak chin, the bug eyes, the odd birdlike motions of the head, and the temper that, regrettably, causes him to explode into profanity when meek delegations of citizens approach him for help.


Shake his hand. He is a new member of the State Duma. No, he is not with Zhirinovsky. Nor is he some wacko Bolshie who lays wreaths on Stalin's grave and fantasizes about sending President Boris Yeltsin to the Kolyma gulag camps. Tolstoshein is one of the reasons we have all been in such a great mood since the election. Like his boss, Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko, Tolstoshein is a member of the Unity bloc. One of the new "centrists" and "reformers" (I cite randomly from international media coverage of the election).


Last week, an avalanche of good press followed the revelation that Unity and other Kremlin-friendly parties would comprise a majority in the next Duma. Entire foreign ministries of Western democracies stood as one and cheered. European observers held press conferences to announce the elections - in which regional strongmen were free to strike theiropponents' names from the ballot - as "fair." News stories hinted that the Duma would finally sort Russia out. U.S. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said, "We hope the election will enable the Duma to take up the economic reform issues ... and we can see capital flow back into Russia."


You know, Sandy, so do I. My favorite thing about Russia is how easily the locals scam foreign governments, which rush back into town at the slightest hint of good news and shake out suitcases full of $100 bills on the bed.


In the interests of encouraging this trend, let me provide a quick sketch of Tolstoshein, drawn from a 1997 document written by Primorye's former presidential representative and regional Federal Security Service chief. I cited this in last week's column, but it deserves further consideration.


The report, by Viktor Kondratov, alleges that top-ranking officials in the Primorye regional administration systematically used law enforcement agencies and the mob to enhance their profits. They reportedly stole money intended to buy fuel oil and formed syndicates to smuggle goods through Chechnya.


Tolstoshein, in particular, is singled out: "Together with the leader of an organized crime group, Alexeyenkov, he conducted an unprecedented deal for selling the [city's] largest hotel, the Vladivostok, to Amis and Co. for virtually nothing," Kondratov wrote.


The hotel was worth 40 billion rubles, $6.7 million at the time, but sold for 127 million rubles, Kondratov wrote. In payment, Tolstoshein's underaged daughter allegedly received a 20 percent stake.


The report went on "Along with illegal financial operations, Tolstoshein uses his connections with the leaders of criminal groups in order to conduct violent operations toward competitors. ... With the help of the criminal leader A.B. Makarenko, he organized the abduction of the radio reporters [Alexei] Sadykov and [Andrei] Zhuravlyov."


Tolstoshein refused to comment when I wrote about this matter in 1997, and he again did not return my calls last week. Sadykov said in an interview two years ago that the kidnappers tied his wrists behind his back, hung him from them, beat him, and burnt him with cigarettes. Now he is tired of the topic. "Let's not dance on the bones," he said.


Tolstoshein helped the leaders of a criminal gang called the Babakekhyan brothers to get control over the Chinese market, Kondratov wrote. As a bribe for his efforts, Tolstoshein allegedly received a Lexus car.


The report goes on at greater length than I can deal with here about the benefits Tolstoshein allegedly reaped from his position. Though Tolstoshein would not comment, a regional spokeswoman called the report "garbage."


President Boris Yeltsin evidently thought so too. The letter was addressed to his deputy chief of staff, but no action was ever taken. Yeltsin, at Nazdratenko's persistent and public urging, eventually dismissed Kondratov.


When you see Tolstoshein strolling, on the edge of a demonstration of unpaid workers outside Vladivostok's government building, you might be inclined to think: Shouldn't such men tremble when angry workers are on the march?


But you would be wrong, my friend. The sheep can bleat all they like. Russia belongs to the wolves.