Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Timing of Raid Raises Eyebrows

MTAnatoly Chubais, the head of state-owned national power utility Unified Energy Systems
The 14-hour raid on the offices of Novosibirsk's power monopoly last week was the second high-profile action by the region's Federal Security Service in less than a week, leading many political observers to conclude that they were somehow related.

After all, the first raid resulted in the arrest of Yukos boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky at a local airport, while the second involved, at least tangentially, Anatoly Chubais, the head of state-owned national power utility Unified Energy Systems and one of the few top executives to publicly decry the action against Khodorkovsky -- which President Vladimir Putin has warned government officials not to do.

The regional FSB declined to comment on the timing of the two raids. In fact, in a bizarre exchange by telephone Friday, they laughed off the request.

"Why are you calling us, anyway? Aren't we the stranglers of democracy?" said an FSB official in Novosibirsk, who declined to give his name.

When asked if it was just a coincidence that his office had been involved in two high-profile fraud cases within a week, the official joked: "We haven't heard any news. We cannot read out here."

Eventually he sent a three-paragraph statement via fax saying the raid on Novosibirskenergo, which started the same day that prosecutors in Moscow announced they had frozen a huge chunk of Yukos shares thought to belong to Khodorkovsky, was in relation to suspected fraud involving payments for electricity transmission in 2002.

The official then asked for contact details for The Moscow Times. "Give it to me," he said. "It might come in handy in [our] Gestapo dungeons."

With such a vague pretext for raiding the company, Novosibirskenergo officials were at a loss to explain what the FSB agents were actually looking for. A spokeswoman for the utility said the search focused on the offices of the company's top managers, including its general director and chief accountant, and that information stored on a computer server was copied. She said investigators were generally polite, but put balaclavas over their faces as soon as reporters arrived on the scene.

"It looked as if they were not looking for documents specifically related to the finances of 2002, but rather into everything, including current operations," she said. "The search lacked logic and was rather unsystematic."

Political and market analysts polled Friday said the whole affair was puzzling, with most saying it did indeed appear to be some kind of warning to Chubais to stay out of the Yukos debate. Others, however, pointed out that it might involve the ongoing struggle for control of Novosibirskenergo.

The notoriously opaque utility is one of just three regional energos that are not formally controlled by Chubais and UES, which owns just 14.2 percent of the company, and its ownership structure, board membership and management have been in a state of constant flux for years.

Although several top UES officials -- such as first deputy CEO Leonid Melamed, deputy board chairman Mikhail Abyzov and financial director Dmitry Zhurba -- have been involved in Novosibirskenergo in some capacity in the past, "they are no longer affiliated with the company," UES spokeswoman Tatyana Milyayeva said.

"We are only a minority shareholder there. The only reason the searches may concern us is if they get in the way of preparations [for] winter."

One industry insider even suggested that last week's raid may be related to UES's efforts to regain control of the company. Despite owning 14 percent of the energo, UES somehow failed in May to get a representative elected to its board.

Another theory, put forward by State Duma Deputy Alexander Fomin, who represents Novosibirsk and belongs to the Union of Right Forces, Chubais' party, is that the raid may be linked to the region's gubernatorial elections, which are scheduled for Dec. 7, the same day as the nationwide Duma vote. He declined, however, to elaborate.

If the raid was indeed a warning to Chubais, the UES chief appears to be ignoring it. He continued his criticism of the government's legal assault on Yukos Saturday, telling RenTV that it shows that the country is being led in "a dangerous" new direction.

When asked who he thought would "be next" after Khodorkovsky, Chubais replied: "I am not interested who is going to be next. What really interests me is what I should do to make sure that there is no next one."