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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pliant Aksyonenko Plays by the Rules

Roman Abramovich sold off his assets in Russia just in the nick of time, right before the door slammed shut. Last week the Prosecutor General's Office questioned Sibneft CEO Eugene Shvidler as part of an investigation into possible tax evasion by the oil company. Prosecutors also completed their investigation against former Railways Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko, a man so close to the Yeltsin-era Family and Abramovich that he was once considered a candidate for prime minister or even president.

No sooner had they filed papers with the court, however, than the prosecutors allowed Aksyonenko to leave the country. It's true that he is terribly ill with leukemia. But former Aeroflot top manager Nikolai Glushkov also suffers from a blood disease and faces the same charges, but he is sitting in prison.

This unexpected concern for the health of the accused isn't the prosecutors' show of benevolence toward Aksyonenko. He is accused of swelling the size of his ministry's staff beyond justifiable limits, and of diverting the ministry's profits into special funds held on accounts at the ministry's own bank. These charges would be easy to beat in court. Aksyonenko's lawyers have already submitted documents showing that the funds were created with the approval of certain deputy prime ministers.

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But the prosecutor's office has no beef with the Railway Ministry's business practices -- all those discounts, special tariffs, operating companies and the tricks it plays with its rolling stock. The things is that for many years now the state has borne the costs, while private operating companies have reaped the profits.

The first such company was TransRail, a Swiss-based freight agent that thrived under Aksyonenko's predecessor, Gennady Fadeyev. On Aksyonenko's watch other companies came to the fore: Yevrosib, Iriston and Yunitrans, all linked to the minister's nephew Sergei or his son Rustam.

The system evolved over time. Discounts to privileged operators were gradually replaced with discounts on shipments of specific types of freight. In 2000, for example, the average discount on coal was 40 percent. Coke shipments were discounted 70 percent and ferrous metals 40 percent. On paper, these discounts applied to everyone, but in practice they were tied to the use of specific freight agents.

Shippers who chose to go with another agent often encountered a sudden shortage of freight cars. Those that purchased their own rolling stock were told that their cars couldn't be moved out of the rail yard just now, so there would be no time to load them. Those who went ahead and did the loading themselves faced inspections.

These days the system is more subtle. The discounts have all but gone, but there is still a difference between what the ministry charges for the use of its rolling stock and what private companies charge for the cars they rent from the ministry. The media and the Audit Chamber have laid a lot at Aksyonenko's door: trying to sell shares in Transkreditbank and Transtelekom and much more. Prosecutors took no interest in any of these contracts, and Aksyonenko's successor at the Railways Ministry was none other than his predecessor, Gennady Fadeyev, who is also believed to be his patron.

You get the impression that a deal has already been done. Yet Aksyonenko remains a failed Yeltsin successor, almost a rival to the sitting president. And there is still that report prepared by the Audit Chamber -- an agency headed by yet another failed successor, Sergei Stepashin, whose fall from grace was engineered by Aksyonenko himself. So why not take the case to court and prove to the uninitiated that Russian courts can actually acquit the innocent, and show the initiated that the courts acquit those who are prepared to cut a deal.

There are three ways to battle corruption: You can change the system; you can leave the system in place and put the viziers in jail -- the Ottoman model; or you can follow the Russian model: leave the system in place and cut deals with the viziers.

Yulia Latynina is a presenter of "24" on RenTV.