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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Aeroflot Investigated as Raids Go On

Prosecutors who said they were looking into allegations of embezzlement at state-owned Aeroflot raided the offices of several Moscow companies on Thursday, in what looked to be part of a continuing offensive by Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov against politically connected tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

The investigators also said some Aeroflot executives could face criminal charges and others interrogation.

Police commandos in camouflage and prosecutors together visited the Moscow offices of New Found Quality, or NFQ, an advertising company reportedly controlled by Berezovsky, and also of the editorial office of Aeroflot's in-flight magazine and of several other companies. All did business with Aeroflot, prosecutors said.

Although authorities were tight-lipped on what, if anything, the searches turned up, they were more open about their motives: They said they were looking into allegations that hundreds of millions of dollars earned by Aeroflot in ticket sales and other transactions abroad could have been siphoned off by an obscure Swiss company called Andava and reportedly controlled by Berezovsky.

An Aeroflot official on Thursday confirmed the existence of Andava and said this Swiss company handles cash generated by Aeroflot's foreign offices.

Allegations that Berezovsky was using Andava to divert tens of millions of dollars from Aeroflot first surfaced more than two years ago, in an October 1997 report in Moskovsky Komsomolets, or MK. Berezovsky is widely believed to control a large stake in Aeroflot, though both he and Aeroflot management deny that.

That same report noted that Boris Yeltsin's son-in-law, Valery Okulov, had been appointed general director at Aeroflot, and aired long-running allegations that much of this diverted money ended up in the pockets of Yeltsin or his immediate family. MK included quotes from a certain Igor Malkov, whom the paper identified as an ex-KGB colonel, describing Berezovsky as "the chief cash disburser, sponsor and financial director of Yeltsin's tight-knit family."

But according to an official with the Prosecutor General 's Office, it was not until Jan. 18, more than two years after MK first made these allegations public, that prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into Andava.

Primakov is widely believed to be the driving force behind this sudden activity. In recent days, he has spoken out mildly against Berezovsky - but prosecutors and commandos have launched public investigations into Berezovsky strongholds like Aeroflot and the Sibneft oil company, while courts have chipped away at the self-proclaimed oligarch's control over ORT television and Transaero airlines.

Media controlled by Berezovsky have responded with vicious attacks on Primakov. The general director of ORT, a Berezovsky loyalist, recently alleged angrily that Primakov was in a conspiracy with the Communists and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov to take over ORT and use it against Yeltsin.

True or not, that angry public claim was surely meant to somehow rouse the president. But if it is unclear whether Primakov has Yeltsin's approval, he has already picked up endorsements from such political heavyweights as Gazprom chief Rem Vyakhirev and Mayor Luzhkov.

Vyakhirev joined a deputy defense minister, a deputy Duma speaker and other politicians in signing a letter on Thursday calling on mass media to renounce "the outbreak of libel" against Primakov.

Luzhkov, meanwhile, told Interfax that there is "sufficient reason" to order investigations into Aeroflot and Sibneft. The mayor also said he did not believe Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov resigned out of health concerns, as was announced Tuesday, although Luzhkov did not elaborate.

The Prosecutor General's Office said deputy Aeroflot director Nikolai Glushkov could soon face charges of "financial wrongdoing." Prosecutors also said other top company executives including Leonid Itskov and Alexander Krasnenker would be questioned.

Krasnenker and Glushkov were both former top officials at Berezovsky's LogoVAZ car dealership empire before coming to Aeroflot. Itskov and Krasnenker were suspended from their duties Wednesday - officially for "shortcomings" in their work, but in reality, according to a spokesman at the Aeroflot press service, because they were "LogoVAZ people." Thursday evening, those two were sacked at a gathering of Aeroflot employees.

Krasnenker's adviser at Aeroflot, Felix Mamikonyan, confirmed the existence of the Swiss company prosecutors are investigating, Andava. In a telephone interview, Mamikonyan said Andava was set up in 1996 to process tens of millions of dollars generated by Aeroflot's foreign offices every year.

He said this Swiss company - which MK said handles $250 million a year and was set up under former Aeroflot general director Yevgeny Shaposhnikov's tenure - was not founded by Aeroflot. However, Mamikonyan denied media reports that Berezovsky controlled 41 percent and Glushkov 57 percent of shares in Andava.

Prosecutors also talked Thursday of charging Shaposhnikov, who is also a former Russian defense minister. But information here was contradictory, with some prosecutors saying Shaposhnikov would face criminal charges and others saying he would be granted immunity from prosecution.

Aeroflot's own offices saw no camouflaged visitors on Thursday, but a spokesman for the company confirmed that the company's corporate partners were being raided and audited.

"It is all part of the probe into you know who and what," an Aeroflot spokeswoman said.

Thursday's raids began shortly before 10 a.m., when 16 prosecutors and gun-toting commandos entered the offices of NFQ advertising at Ulitsa Dmitriya Ulyanova. The investigators spent four hours digging into files and interrogating employees. When they left in the evening, they took with them NFQ's founding documents and all paperwork related to the company's business with Aeroflot.

NFQ spokesman Igor Malov said in a telephone interview Thursday that his company has designed and carried out Aeroflot advertising campaigns and publishes the Aeroflot in-flight magazine. But Malov vehemently denied a report in Thursday's MK that his company is part of Berezovsky's empire.

The raids Thursday came as yet another blow to Berezovsky's troubled empire this week.

On Tuesday prosecutors raided the offices of his Sibneft oil company, saying they were investigating allegations that a security company affiliated with Sibneft was electronically eavesdropping on Yeltsin's family. Prosecutors came away from the Sibneft raid claiming to have found media evidence of such surveillance.

MK reported last month that a certain Atoll security company, allegedly controlled by Berezovsky, has been eavesdropping on Yeltsin's younger daughter and adviser Tatyana Dyachenko, apparently as part of an extortion scheme.