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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Probes Giving Ministers Jitters

An unexpected burst of publicity this week for a series of ongoing investigations by the Audit Chamber and General Prosecutor's Office into federal agencies has stirred up a commotion in the political establishment, sending two powerful Cabinet ministers scrambling into hiding.

The prosecutor's office is investigating possible financial mismanagement and corruption involving high officials in the Railways Ministry, Emergency Situations Ministry and state committees in charge of customs and fishing. Interfax reported Tuesday that all four investigations grew out of reports by the Audit Chamber, which it said is now looking at other federal agencies, including the Press Ministry.

Despite repeated denials from the prosecutor's office that its investigation at the Emergency Situations Ministry has anything to do with Minister Sergei Shoigu -- the leader of the pro-Kremlin Unity party, who built up support for Vladimir Putin's election as president -- Shoigu appeared worried. He checked into a hospital Tuesday, reportedly complaining of high blood pressure.

Press Minister Mikhail Lesin left unexpectedly for vacation Wednesday after the Audit Chamber began looking into his ministry's activities, Press Ministry officials said. Sources within the ministry said Lesin's team was under attack from newcomers in the Kremlin.

Under the Labor Code, officials cannot be fired while they are in a hospital or on vacation.

Like Railways Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko, who has been on vacation since being charged by prosecutors Oct. 19 with abuse of office, Lesin is believed to be linked to the Family -- former President Boris Yeltsin's inner circle, which has been gradually retreating since Putin's rise to power.

Also on Tuesday, St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev suspended his deputy, Valery Malyshev, who has been under investigation since July on allegations of bribery. But Yakovlev only suspended Malyshev when asked to do so by the Prosecutor General's Office after it added the additional charge of abuse of office, Interfax reported.

The various investigations began at different times and, at least formally, are not related to one another. But reports carried Tuesday by Interfax and RIA Novosti grouped them together and prompted the Russian media, particularly those controlled by Boris Berezovsky, to speculate on a Kremlin-instigated plan to purge the government of Yeltsin-era holdovers.

Berezovsky's TV6 television and Kommersant newspaper reported, citing unnamed government sources, that Putin's long-time associate and deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin runs a "shadow task force" charged with a creeping reshuffle of the government by means of corruption exposures.

"One has to report another wave of a natural process: New figures are replacing the old ones," Kommersant wrote Wednesday in its lead article on the front page. "The form is traditionally Russian -- with the use of law enforcement bodies."

The newspaper said that, along with personnel changes at Gazprom, the investigations are targeted at officials who carry out business on behalf of the state, in other words, through whose hands cash flows.

The investigations also were front-page news Wednesday in Vremya Novostei, which is reportedly linked to the Kremlin's seemingly invincible chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin.

Political analysts interviewed Wednesday, however, spoke with caution about the possibility of a Kremlin plan and said the development is likely a combination of several factors.

Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst with the INDEM think tank, said that the view of the Family as one consolidated group fought by Putin's team of young, formerly KGB-affiliated St.Petersburgers is a simplification, and law enforcement bodies are likely doing their job without necessarily doing the work of one political clan or another. But he said that a "natural process" of replacing government elites is also under way.

"Sooner or later any freebie is over," Korgunyuk said. "In the past, a reshuffle would have been executed by signing a presidential decree. This time around, it is proceeding in a somewhat more civilized way."

Leonid Smirnyagin, a domestic politics analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that the word "purges," which in Russian instantly brings associations with Stalin's random repressions of officials in the 1930s, can be used in the present "with very large quotation marks."

Smirnyagin said that the events are in part related to Audit Chamber chairman Sergei Stepashin's personal ambitions and Putin is unlikely to be playing a personal role.

"President Putin usually distances himself from tactical issues and allows bureaucrats to deal with other bureaucrats," Smirnyagin said.

The revelations that the investigations under way in the Prosecutor General's Office were based on the findings of the Audit Chamber puzzled officials there.

"It is clear that some kind of game is being played and we are being used in it," said an official within the Audit Chamber who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Audit Chamber's reports on the Railways Ministry, Emergency Situations Ministry, State Fisheries Committee and State Customs Committee were completed over the past year, and none of them, at the time of their completion, prompted an immediate investigation by law enforcement agencies, the official said.

Even the report on the Railways Ministry was in fact a summary of previous reports covering the ministry's activities from 1998 onward. And according to the Audit Chamber official, the same information had never before caused anything near a criminal investigation.

The Audit Chamber, the budgetary watchdog, does not have the power to collect the kind of evidence necessary to justify the filing of criminal charges. No documents can be taken from the federal agency being investigated. Its role is limited to suggesting that an investigation be opened to establish whether there are grounds for criminal charges.

The results of an audit of the Railways Ministry completed in June were sent to government bodies and the State Duma. In early September the Anti-Monopoly Ministry showed interest in findings questioning whether there were violations of anti-monopoly law.

"But there was nothing there that could be related to any actual crime," the Audit Chamber official said.

As for the Emergency Situations Ministry, the auditors have never found anything even remotely serious, the official said.

According to an official in the Emergency Situations Ministry, the reported criminal investigation involves Vladimir Kulyechev, once Shoigu's deputy and currently the head of the Federal Control Committee for Mining and Industry. Kulyechev's secretary said he was in the office working Wednesday but would not comment.

Kulyechev left the Emergency Situations Ministry in 1999, a ministry official said. He then held various posts in the government, including as head of Shoigu's office in his capacity as deputy prime minister, before joining the federal committee last year.

Stepashin, however, played up the connection between the Audit Chamber's inspections and the General Prosecutor's Office's investigations.

"Practically all the results of Audit Chamber inspections are sent to the prosecution bodies," Interfax quoted him as saying. And 48 criminal cases have been opened this year based on the Audit Chamber's reports, he said.

No officials currently working in the State Fisheries Committee are involved in the criminal investigations. According to Interfax, those targeted by prosecutors are the former head of the committee, Yury Sinelnik, and his first deputy, Mikhail Dementyev, who are accused of bribery in doling out fishing quotas. The case against Dementyev was begun in January, Deputy Prosecutor General Yury Biryukov said Wednesday. Yevgeny Nazdratenko, former governor of the Primorye region, was appointed head of the committee in February.

Speaking in the Duma, Biryukov said that the prosecutor's office was doing its regular work and he denied that it was at anyone's political bidding.

A State Customs Committee spokesman said Wednesday that the investigation at his office has "an economic, not a political base." The committee said in a press release that the investigation, which is not targeted at any named official, was "ungrounded" and should be closed when evidence is properly evaluated.

The case was opened by the prosecutor's office in response to a complaint by Sergei Zuyev, the head of the furniture retail company that operates the Grand and Tri Kita, or Three Whales, stores in Moscow. Zuyev and the State Customs Committee have been involved for more than a year in a series of disputes and mutual accusations.