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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kolesnikov: the Prosecutor in the Spotlight

APKolesnikov, who led a new investigation into Beslan this fall, meeting with mothers in Vladikavkaz on Sept. 11, 2004.
If a crime grabs the national spotlight, Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov is almost always put on the case.

The burly prosecutor rushes to the scene and appears on television sputtering angrily about suspects and witnesses, as if to reassure the nation that the guilty will be punished and order will be restored.

Kolesnikov first made the news when he led the team of police detectives that caught one of the world's most notorious serial killers, Andrei Chikatilo, in 1990. Since then, he has rarely been out of the public eye for long, first as an Interior Ministry official rising rapidly through the ranks and since 2000 as a high-profile mouthpiece for the Prosecutor General's Office.

Most recently, he was dispatched to Nalchik on Oct. 13 when armed Islamist militants launched coordinated attacks on the town. In September, he was appointed by President Vladimir Putin to spearhead a special investigation into the Beslan school attack.

Some former colleagues praise Kolesnikov as a dedicated professional, while critics say he often creates the impression of activity to head off public discontent or serves as a tool for the Kremlin to attack its foes.

In contrast to his high PR impact, Kolesnikov's track record in solving big cases has been patchy.

Since his appointment as a deputy to Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov in 2002, Kolesnikov has overseen investigations of some of the country's most sensational killings, such as the brazen murder of Magadan Governor Valentin Tsvetkov in central Moscow and the killings of two newspaper editors in Tolyatti. In none of these cases has the investigation led to a successful conviction.

Kolesnikov has also unleashed his fury against former powerful insiders who have fallen out with the Kremlin, such as Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and most recently former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who is being investigated over his acquisition of a government villa near Moscow.

Kolesnikov has denied that political motives lie behind his intervention.

"At every trifle they say: politics, politics. One shouldn't steal and there will be no politics," Kolesnikov said in July, referring to the Kasyanov investigation.

Targeting Khodorkovsky

It was Kolesnikov who heralded the arrest of Khodorkovsky with another homily on theft, just four days before the head of Yukos was seized at gunpoint on a Siberian runway and charged with fraud and tax evasion.

"I personally don't want Khodorkovsky to be behind bars, ... but there's no need for cheating and stealing -- you have to answer for everything," Kolesnikov said at an Oct. 21, 2003, news conference.

Three weeks later, speaking to a group of ultranationalist LDPR State Duma deputies, Kolesnikov dropped any display of reticence.

"Sadly, it is impossible to give him a longer term," he said, referring to the maximum 10-year sentence his office was demanding. After a nearly yearlong trial, Khodorkovsky was convicted and given a nine-year sentence, which was reduced to eight years on appeal.

In September 2002, Kolesnikov set his sights on getting Berezovsky extradited from Britain, accusing him of stealing 2,000 cars worth $13 million through his auto dealership in the 1990s. Judges in Britain rejected Russian prosecutors' demand and later granted Berezovsky political asylum, saying they feared he would not receive a fair trial in Russia.

Kolesnikov has also attempted to whip up populist fears, as when he warned of a risk of accidents at energy facilities after Moscow's power outage in May, and has railed against what he said were illegal adoptions by foreigners.

Last year, he controversially called for followers of the Wahhabi strain of Islam to be jailed, saying it prompted youth to take up arms in a jihad, or holy war.

Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, said Kolesnikov's role was often to rush to the scene of a crime and create the appearance of activity with a flurry of bold statements.

"He has a penchant for public relations," Mukhin said. "His unofficial tasks include reassuring the public and saying that everything is under control."

Damage Control

The new investigation he led into Beslan appeared to be intended more as a damage-control exercise after a group of victims' relatives led by Beslan Mothers' Committee head Susanna Dudiyeva complained to Putin that investigators had ignored testimony from some of the witnesses.

On Sept. 30, Kolesnikov said his team had questioned all the witnesses named by Dudiyeva, and that their testimony had disproved claims that the militants hid weapons in the school before the attack and that a security forces sniper could have set off the gunfight at the school.

Wrapping up his work in October, Kolesnikov said he agreed with the conclusions of the previous investigation. The statement prompted members of the Beslan Mothers' Committee to picket the Prosecutor General's Office last week to demand Kolesnikov's resignation. Dudiyeva said Kolesnikov did not want to know the truth.

In September, he had said that prosecutors would question Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev and Federal Security Service director Nikolai Patrushev -- two of the Moscow officials that Beslan residents blame for the tragedy, in which 331 people died. There have been no reports about either of them having been questioned.

"That should have been done at the very beginning of the investigation," said Yury Skuratov, a former prosecutor general who was fired in 1999 after investigating allegations of high-level corruption. "We still don't know who was in charge there and who should be held responsible.

"In our time, we questioned Chernomyrdin," he said, referring to then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. "Now, the prosecutor's office has sunk to such a position that questioning a minister is only in one's wildest dream."

There was nothing unusual about Kolesnikov's inclination to reassure the public that criminal will be caught and punished, Skuratov said. "When he arrives, everybody expects results from him. He won't say that the case will never be solved, will he? And he sincerely believes that it will."

Skuratov said that Kolesnikov's exact duties at the prosecutor's office appeared hazy, but that his background as a police detective and Interior Ministry official meant he was well suited to heading up investigations.

The Tolyatti Killings

The investigations into the killings of the two editors in Tolyatti could be viewed as among Kolesnikov's most notable failures.

Valery Ivanov, the editor of Tolyatti Review, was killed in April 2002, and his successor, Alexei Sidorov, was killed in October 2003. Kolesnikov investigated both murders, stating after the first one, "We know the names of the killers, but we cannot make them public yet."

Two suspects in Ivanov's murder were released without charge, and another died in detention during the investigation, said Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a free speech watchdog.

A welder at a Tolyatti factory was arrested in the Sidorov case, but acquitted in court. The murders remain unsolved.

It was widely believed that the killings were acts of revenge over the newspaper's quest to expose corruption and organized crime in the city, a center of the national auto industry.

Kolesnikov, however, blamed Sidorov's death on a drunken brawl.

Sidorov's father, Vladimir, sent Kolesnikov a scathing letter, made public in February 2004, which claimed his son's death was being used "to create the illusion that the prosecutors are working effectively."

Simonov used stronger words to describe Kolesnikov. "He's a liar," Simonov said by telephone. "He lied twice and he wasn't punished."

Kolesnikov declined requests made through his office for an interview.

Other cases that Kolesnikov supervised also have run into trouble in court, such as a 2003 case against four doctors charged with attempting to murder a seriously ill patient by planning to remove his kidney for a transplant.

The Moscow City Court acquitted the doctors in March of this year, but the Supreme Court overturned the ruling after an appeal from the prosecutors and sent the case back for a retrial. The doctors went on trial for a second time in August, and a verdict is expected on Wednesday.

Skuratov said it was not fair to blame the failures solely on Kolesnikov. "It's the result of poor work by the teams of investigators and experts," he said. "Anyone would have failures in his place."

In the investigation into the 1998 killing of liberal Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova, Kolesnikov has been uncharacteristically quiet.

Immediately after his appointment as deputy prosecutor general, he said he would supervise the investigation. But Starovoitova's sister Olga said that nothing had changed after Kolesnikov had gotten involved in the case, and that although investigators had successfully brought some of the suspects to justice, Kolesnikov had appeared to have played no part in their work.

A St. Petersburg court in June convicted two suspects in the killing, and the local FSB branch said that it would soon open a case against two more. But the investigation has yet to identify who put out the hit on Starovoitova or bring to trial three suspects that remain at large.

The cases that ended in successful convictions after Kolesnikov got involved are few and far between.

In one such case, a deputy head of the Federal Fisheries Agency and an official in the Far East port of Magadan were convicted in 2004 of illegally catching and selling $6 million worth of crab and other shellfish. But even then, the two officials got away with suspended sentences after an appeal to the Supreme Court.

The case came to light while prosecutors were investigating the killing of Tsvetkov, the Magadan governor, in October 2002, an investigation Kolesnikov was involved in.

Three suspects were arrested in Tsvetkov's killing, the latest in December 2004, but there have been no reports of any trial scheduled. Police have identified six other suspects, who are still at large, but law enforcement agencies have yet to identify who was behind the killing.

Fast-Track Career

Kolesnikov, 57, was born in Abkhazia and began his career as a police investigator in Rostov-on-Don in 1972. He moved to Moscow to study at the Soviet Interior Ministry's academy from 1988 to 1990, returning to Rostov as deputy head of the regional police.

In 1990, he headed the police task force that arrested Chikatilo, Russia's most infamous serial killer who was responsible for 52 deaths. The case brought Kolesnikov nationwide prominence and put him on a fast track to advancement. He moved back to Moscow the same year to become deputy head of criminal investigations at the Russian Interior Ministry, and he rose rapidly through the ranks to become first deputy interior minister in 1995.

Over the next five years, Kolesnikov dealt with several high-profile cases, including the 1996 Kotlyakovskoye Cemetery explosion in southeastern Moscow and investigations into terrorist attacks in Dagestan in the late 1990s.

One of three suspects in the cemetery explosion, which killed 14 people and appeared to be part of a turf war over the profitable business of the Fund of Afghan War Invalids, was convicted in May 2003, and another died in a traffic accident.

In Dagestan, Kolesnikov pressed fraud charges against dozens of senior regional officials in the fall of 1998, but investigations all but halted after he left the republic to take up another case.

Dagestan's long-serving leader, Magomedali Magomedov, has been accused of using the Interior Ministry to quash opposition.

Skuratov, however, said Kolesnikov had worked professionally in the cemetery and Dagestan investigations.

It was during the trips to Dagestan that Kolesnikov met Ustinov, who was then deputy prosecutor general responsible for the North Caucasus.

In 2000, Kolesnikov left the ministry after a disagreement with then-Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo and became an aide to Ustinov at the Prosecutor General's Office. In 2002, he was appointed one of Ustinov's deputies.

Peacemaking Role

In a change of role, Kolesnikov was sent last year to mediate a solution to the political crisis in his native Abkhazia. The breakaway Georgian province was split by a standoff between rival presidential candidates Sergei Bagapsh, representing the opposition, and Raul Khadzhimba, favored by Moscow, following a disputed election last October.

As the dispute threatened to slide into civil war, Moscow sent Kolesnikov to support Khadzhimba, while nationalist Duma Deputy Sergei Baburin intervened to press Bagapsh's cause.

Unflinching as ever, Kolesnikov initially refused to yield any ground, which fueled the already high tensions in the province, Baburin said.

The standoff was settled after Moscow threatened to impose economic sanctions on Abkhazia if Bagapsh did not give up his claim of victory. Bagapsh agreed to hold a rerun election, and was elected president on a joint ticket with Khadzhimba as his vice president.

Despite Kolesnikov's tough stance in the negotiations, Baburin spoke highly of his ability to compromise.

"Diplomacy isn't always about licking your ... opponent. Sometimes it's about making clear statements," he said. "And also, he's capable of compromise. He did apply strong pressure, but a settlement would have been impossible without him."