U.S. House to take up Russian rights bill as another graft case comes to light in Moscow

November 14, 2012

As the U.S. House of Representatives prepares to take up legislation known as the Magnitsky bill this week, a newspaper reported Wednesday that a key figure in the Russian corruption case that inspired the measure is involved in a two-year-old criminal investigation.

Olga Stepanova was the head of a tax office that approved a fraudulent $230 million refund in 2007, a scheme revealed by whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky before he was arrested. He died in jail three years ago Friday. Now, the newspaper Vedomosti reports that criminal investigators have been following a separate tax-refund case — from 2009, worth $130 million — in which Stepanova was a principal actor.

The Vedomosti article was sparked by the burgeoning corruption cases that have made news here over the past few weeks. They began with an investigation in late October into Russia’s Defense Ministry that has claimed the job of one of President Vladimir Putin’s most loyal colleagues, Anatoly Serdyukov.

Stepanova worked for former defense minister Serdyukov when he was head of the tax agency, and she later transferred to work under him at the Defense Ministry. She no longer works there and has not been directly linked to the Defense Ministry scandal, which involves the sale of millions of dollars worth of property at rock-bottom prices.

Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst, suggested Wednesday that without Serdyukov’s protection, Stepanova may have been sacrificed in a last-ditch bid to mollify the West and perhaps even derail the House bill, which would put strict banking and visa sanctions on Russian officials associated with the Magnitsky case.

The Russian government has been strongly critical of the bill. The White House has resisted it but appears to be resigned to its passage.

The Stepanova case is not the only one that has come to light in the wake of the Defense Ministry graft scandal. Last week brought allegations of corruption in the space program and among the organizers of an international summit in Vladivostok. This week, investigators have fingered the Health Ministry, the Education Ministry and the regional government for Moscow’s suburbs.

Putin appears to be in damage-dampening mode. The “clans” within the Kremlin are sorting out their differences, Piontkovsky and many others here believe, unmindful of the president’s once-firm control.

“It is a critical event in the history of Putinism,” Piontkovsky said.

Going public with the Stepanova investigation will not exactly burnish Putin’s image, because Serdyukov was so close to the president, but it might be Putin’s way of making the best of a bad situation.

Piontkovsky, like others, believes that the Defense Ministry investigation was forced on Putin by Serdyukov’s rivals within the government. The ensuing probes into other ministries may be counter-strikes or an effort to look like the Kremlin is finally getting out front in battling graft, or both.

It shows, he said, that “Putin is not the all-powerful leader of his entourage.”

The question, said Boris Makarenko of the Center for Political Technologies think tank, is whether prosecutors will pursue these cases. Maybe the activity is just a warning to officials that they should tone down the corruption for a while, he said.

Alternatively, he said, “maybe Putin is finally trying to address the crying issue.”

Sergei Stepashin, head of Russia’s Audit Chamber, said Wednesday that about $30 billion in government money is stolen every year. Others have put the total level of bribery at 10 times that amount.

Serdyukov was pushing through sweeping reforms in the military at Putin’s behest and was deeply unpopular among the officer corps. His replacement, Sergei Shoigu, has been quickly shuffling staff and early on has been greeted with relief by the armed services.

Until spring, Shoigu had spent more than a decade as head of the Emergency Management Ministry, and he is among the most popular officeholders in Russia. Some are wondering whether the move to the Defense Ministry sets him up as Putin’s anointed successor — or, in the more lurid scenarios, to be available to step in if the battling clans decide to dispense with Putin before his term is up.

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