In Russia, corruption continues unabated after reformer is gunned down


Anatoly Dushko stands by the front gate of the house where he lived with his son Yevgeny, assassinated last year after deciding that as mayor of Sergiev Posad he would fight corruption. (Will Englund/Washington Post)
June 11, 2012

The street lights in front of the house had gone out. Early in the morning, the phone went dead. Had Sergiev Posad run out of money to pay its bills again? Bled dry by well-connected contractors, the city had been having trouble scraping up the cash for its legitimate expenses, and sometimes the utilities were cut off.

No, this was personal.

At 7:05 a.m., Mayor Yevgeny Dushko, 35, four months into his term and astonished by the graft he had found at City Hall, walked briskly out of the house where he lived with his wife and parents halfway down Soviet Street. Always in a hurry, he was determined to get at the rot, had said as much on local television and thought he could mobilize the city’s residents behind him.

As he slid behind the wheel of his Volvo S60 sedan, a man emerged from the cellar of the house being built across the street. He walked up to the driver’s side of the car and shot Dushko six times, in the head, the heart and the liver. Then he walked away.

That was Aug. 22, 2011. Since then the police have found no suspects, nor have they in fact shown much interest in conducting an investigation. No reforms have tackled graft in Sergiev Posad. The old ways continue, part of the scourge of corruption that has left cities and towns across Russia too broke to provide basic services.

After half a year of protests in Moscow against corruption at the country’s highest levels, the local burdens of graft and kickbacks still go unremarked and unaddressed. The plight of Sergiev Posad, just 40 miles northeast of Moscow, and the likelihood that nothing will be done about it, could serve as a rallying point for those in the opposition who are critical of the system constructed by Vladimir Putin, now entering his third term as Russia’s president. But it has attracted little attention in the capital.

Anatoly Dushko, the mayor’s father, an athletic 69-year-old weightlifting coach, had gone to church that day, as he did regularly, to light a candle, in hopes that it might somehow protect him and his family. It had taken longer than usual; some women ahead of him had been annoyingly slow.

Now, 15 minutes after the shooting, he pulled up at the house. Here was his wife, Nina, screaming over their son, in a frenzy and unable to call anyone — police, ambulance or husband. Anatoly dragged Yevgeny out of his car and got him into his sport-utility vehicle. He raced to the hospital, but the doctors took one look at the mayor and told Anatoly there was no rush: Yevgeny Dushko had been dead from the moment he was shot. It was a professional hit.

“There was a criminal system here,” Anatoly Dushko said. “He tried to change it. But the system won.”

Dushko’s successor as mayor has found himself at war with the heads of the city departments, who refuse to recognize the administrator he appointed and have been taking orders from another man, who styles himself “acting head” of administration — and is so identified on the city Web site.

Home to 100,000 people, Sergiev Posad is the seat of the Russian Orthodox patriarch and boasts a sprawling, exquisitely restored cathedral complex that attracts pilgrims from across the country. But the church remains aloof, and the city remains in the hands of Dushko’s enemies.

“The system in our town reflects the system in Russia,” said Vadim Mikhailov, who was in charge of community relations for Dushko. “He became a victim of this corrupt mechanism because he was fighting against it.”

Public mandate

In last year’s election, Dushko’s allies won 23 of 25 seats on the city council, and he thought that gave him the authority to act. He identified three areas as the centers of corruption: housing services (utilities and maintenance, which in Russia are usually provided by the city), housing construction and the city markets. He fired the city administrator and set up a working group to fight corruption. He toiled long hours and demanded similar commitment from those around him.

Dushko had worked as an adviser to governors in various regions across Russia before returning to Sergiev Posad, where he became co-owner of a newspaper called Yarmarka. He knew from experience how the game was played, but corruption has mushroomed in Russia in recent years, and he was shocked by the damage it was doing to his city.

“He was brave and straightforward, maybe too much sometimes,” said Olga Solnishkina, who was his press secretary. “He went on TV, and he called people thieves and crooks. He could do this. That was his style.”

When he was home, he didn’t talk much about his work. Anatoly Dushko said he had no idea what his son was getting into. But after the killing, as he was cleaning out the car, he found a memo jotted down by Yevgeny.

Item No. 1 was one word: the name of the regional housing chief.

Then came references to “organized criminal groups” headed by city bureaucrats (who were named), budget losses from a single contract and “falsification of criminal cases.”

Then the mayor laid out his plan: an audit of city departments going back to 2006. There would be a warning to employees of dismissals if they broke the non-disclosure clauses of their contracts. And they would be told to have no contact with “representatives of organized-crime gangs.”

Dushko apparently thought he had traced corruption up to the regional, or oblast, level, and that this explained why his public complaints brought no action. So he planned to turn the results of his audit over to federal authorities, hoping that they would have the independence and the inclination to act.

The Saturday before his death, he went Moscow for what he told Solnishkina would be a very important meeting. She never found out whom he met or what the meeting was about.

Lack of investigation

At the time, it was suggested in the media that his killing represented just a dispute between businessmen, settled in a common Russian style. Dushko, according to this version, was trying to move in on established firms to win a share of city contracts for his own companies.

His father kept quiet at first. As a coach, he had never been much interested in politics or had reason to question the system. He thought the police were conducting a legitimate investigation. But as weeks stretched into months, and as he talked to Yevgeny’s colleagues, he began to realize the cards were stacked against him and the memory of his son. He badgered the police, and he wrote a long letter to then-President Dmitry Medvedev, all without results.

He asked a local lawyer to represent him, but she declined. “She’s courageous, but she has a family,” is how he explains it.

“I want to go to court, but I don’t know how,” Anatoly said. “I want a trial against the country where I live.”

Within days of the killing, the hot water was turned off throughout Sergiev Posad because the city couldn’t pay its gas bill. Residents blocked the main road in and out of town. Mikhailov, who had spent the summer talking to local groups about ways to fight corruption, was arrested and charged with organizing the blockade. That kept him in jail during Dushko’s funeral; he thinks the oblast authorities feared he would turn it into a political protest.

He was freed after five days, but then he was fired. So was Solnishkina and most of the others who had worked for Dushko.

In the fall, Mikhailov gathered 3,000 signatures for a petition imploring Medvedev to authorize a federal investigation into Dushko’s killing. He delivered it to Medvedev’s office, which responded with a pro forma reply.

Everything has gone back to the way it was, Solnishkina said. Nobody works hard, even as the new mayor and the department heads vie for control of Sergiev Posad, and the media are full of bland stories. The city’s budget is still a wreck, but Yarmarka, Dushko’s old newspaper, now runs articles that support the establishment.

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