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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zurabov's Wife Goes on Trial

Itar-TassYulia Zurabova
Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov's wife went on trial this week on charges of illegally buying valuable land in the Moscow region.

The case threatens to further vilify Zurabov among a public angered over his attempts to carry out unpopular, Kremlin-backed social reforms.

A court in the Moscow regional town of Istra opened hearings Monday into Yulia Zurabova's acquisition of about 6.5 hectares of land near the Istra reservoir.

Moscow regional prosecutor Ivan Sidoruk said Zurabova bought the land to build a house in the village of Telepnyovo in late 2002, but failed to get construction approval from the Natural Resources Ministry, Interfax reported.

The ministry has to sign off on land deals in federally protected areas.

Land near the Istra reservoir is federally protected, and special permission is required to build houses there.

Business heavyweights Boris Berezovsky, Anatoly Chubais and Vladimir Potanin, and pop diva Alla Pugachyova also own homes in the area and have come under fire from the Natural Resources Ministry.

Zurabov spokeswoman Yelena Volokhova refused to comment on the case, saying Zurabova had asked her not to speak with reporters.

However, Volokhova told Interfax on Monday that Zurabova sold the land late last year after learning that she might face trouble with prosecutors and the Natural Resources Ministry. "The plots were sold for the same amount of money that they had been purchased for in 2002," Volokhova was quoted as saying.

Citing prosecutors, Gazeta said Zurabova paid about $49,000 for the land and that it was actually worth up to $490,000.

Charges that his wife was involved in a shady land deal will do nothing to improve Zurabov's image as the most unpopular minister in the Cabinet, said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank.

Zurabov is bearing the brunt of public anger over the Kremlin's replacement of state benefits with meager cash payments, a change that started Jan. 1 and led to large nationwide protests.

"However, Zurabov has already accepted the role of a scapegoat for the unpopular social reforms and is not afraid of being dismissed," Pribylovsky said.

He suggested that President Vladimir Putin and Zurabov probably have struck an agreement under which Zurabov will take responsibility for fallout from the reforms.

"It has become popular these days to blame Zurabov for everything, just as it used to be popular to blame everything on Chubais," Pribylovsky said.

Chubais, the head of electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems, was an unpopular liberal reformer in President Boris Yeltsin's government.

Zurabov and his wife have not made any public comments about the case, and Zurabova's lawyers could not be located for comment Tuesday.

Judge Vladimir Trushin on Monday scheduled the next hearing in the case for Feb. 25.