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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nenets Governor Feeling the Heat

The governor of the oil-rich Nenets autonomous district is at the center of six criminal investigations, but prosecutors cannot agree among themselves whether to charge him or not. Moreover, neither they nor the governor's aides know where he is.

The bustle around Governor Vladimir Butov, re-elected for a second term as head of the far northern region last year, began after President Vladimir Putin's June 24 news conference in the Kremlin when a reporter from the Nenets capital, Naryan Mar, asked Putin why three regional prosecutors in a row have lost their jobs after summoning Butov for questioning.

Putin promised to raise the issue with Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov the same day.

The Kremlin press service would not confirm Friday whether the conversation took place.

But two days later, on Wednesday, investigator Viktoria Bobrova, an aide to Nenets' acting regional prosecutor, pressed charges against the governor for abuse of office and issued a federal search warrant as he was out of the region and his whereabouts were unknown. The grounds for the charges were not specified.

On Friday, Bobrova's boss, Zoya Kozhevina, withdrew the charges and canceled the warrant following an order from Vladimir Zubrin, deputy prosecutor general for the Northwestern Federal District, who said it was "premature" to move against the governor.

Kozhevina said she had been away when her subordinate made the decision to charge Butov.

In his defense, Butov told Interfax that he is on sick leave and is not in hiding and will be back in Naryan Mar on Tuesday.

Zubrin said that, despite the six criminal investigations involving Butov, there is nothing to charge the governor with at the moment.

"I also have serious questions for the head of the Nenets autonomous district. But we must act in accordance with the law," Zubrin was quoted by Interfax as saying Friday.

Journalist Alexei Vasilivetsky from the newspaper Naryana Vynder (Red Tundra-Dweller), when posing the crucial question to Putin, said Butov had repeatedly failed to show up for questioning when summoned.

Reached by telephone Friday, Vasilivetsky said he felt lucky to have been called on by Putin at the press conference; the question had not been prearranged with Putin's aides, he said.

The governor, Vasilivetsky said, has not been seen in his regional office in months. Kommersant quoted Naryan Mar police chief Viktor Vorobyova as saying he had not seen Butov since March.

The woman who answered the telephone Friday in the Nenets district prosecutor's office said no one was available to comment. The Prosecutor General's Office in Moscow said Zubrin's comments to Interfax served as its statement.

In Butov's office, his staff confirmed that he was on sick leave but said they did not know where he was. They followed up with an e-mail statement saying the governor was the victim of an information campaign by LUKoil.

Kommersant and media in Naryan Mar have reported that an Audit Chamber investigation uncovered that some 38 million rubles in federal funds -- 38 billion prior to the 1998 ruble redenomination, and roughly $6.3 million -- that were transferred to the regional budget in 1997 ended up on the accounts of firms affiliated with the governor.

The funds were meant be spent on the purchase and delivery of food, fuel and other goods to the district's most remote parts as part of the federal government's so-called northern shipments program.

An official in the Audit Chamber confirmed on Friday that such an investigation was conducted in 2000. The official would not say whether this investigation was what led to the current allegations or provide any details.

Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin, however, told Interfax that the charges against Butov were based on this investigation. "We conducted a serious audit that uncovered major wrongdoing, including instances of tax evasion by the heads of major enterprises," Stepashin was quoted as saying.

Kozhevina said that, for the sake of objectivity, Butov's cases will be handed over to prosecutors in the neighboring Arkhangelsk region.

According to press reports, the other investigations involving the governor are connected to allegations of embezzlement and of machinations in the oil industry.