What governors are jailed for in modern Russia
Criminal cases against Russian governors: tendencies, intrigues, patterns
A high-profile arrest took place last week: Governor of Khabarovsk Oblast Sergey Furgal (LDPR party) turned out under arrest who triumphantly snatched power from his United Russia opponent in the election two years ago. He is accused of a series of contracts on businesspeople in Khabarovsk Oblast and Amur Krai in the 2000s. Realnoe Vremya together with political expert Sergey Markelov remembered other regional leaders who had been brought criminal cases in the last years.
“A criminal case against a governor is immediately rated as political”
Sergey, many experts consider the recent arrest of Khabarovsk Governor Furgal was political. Do you think previous arrests of governors had a “political” trace?
A political underpinning always appears when clouds gather above a politician. Moreover, it doesn’t matter who it is — a municipal deputy, a State Duma deputy or governor. In other words, any action done against the current politician or even a retired one (for instance, a former governor) automatically becomes political. Let’s go back: could the Furgal Case, Gaizer Case in Komi, Nikita Belykh Case come down to their incrimination and “what are they jailed for?”. No, they couldn’t. A criminal case against a governor is immediately rated a political case.
You know, compared to Nikita Belykh, the Furgal Case seems to be more political…
I will be honest, any case is probably unique. But in such an issue I would go by the following rule: 80% of situations are ordinary cases anyway, only 20% are unique.
How are ordinary cases explained? Is it the cases of bribes or diversion of public money and because governors cross a line because of bribes?
We can’t say these governors crossed a line. There is the following logic: all governors, all State Duma deputies, all city mayors, all local and regional deputies know they are at gunpoint of security workers. They often say laughing like: “I know there is a folder on me somewhere”. And the mythology of a folder with security workers’ observations of politicians is very vivid and strong. The cases Furgal, Belykh, Solovyov from Udmurtia (Editor’s Note: he is accused of taking bribes for patronage over contracts on construction of bridges via the Kama and Buy Rivers), the Gaizer Case confirm that it isn’t mythology, while a folder exists — “episodes” pile up there, security workers work.
A political underpinning always appears when clouds gather above a politician. Moreover, it doesn’t matter who it is — a municipal deputy, a State Duma deputy or governor. In other words, any action done against the current politician or even a retired one (for instance, a former governor) automatically becomes political
“When security workers make a decision, they don’t let the lobbyists in on it”
If there is a folder, how to explain that governors are “brave”?
Appetite comes with eating. As a governor, you meet with security workers from the Federal Security Service, Ministry of Internal Affairs, prosecutor’s office once a week and try to play at being sincere. You ask them: “Folks, are we fine?” They say: “Well, there is a functionary who is causing more troubles than usual”. The governor asks: “Is everything fine with me?” They say: “Fine”. And the governor calms down.
And then it turns out that while we are having breakfast with the governor in the morning, federal channels are saying that the governor whom I am sitting next to has submitted a letter of resignation, and this resignation will be accepted by the president. He starts to convulsively call somebody, he thinks he has misheard it.
Moreover, those people who make it as governors hear their retinue say: “Don’t be afraid, you didn’t occupy this post by yourself, you had lobbyists, this is why don’t spoil it very much, work carefully, and you will be protected. If you screw it up, others will get out of it, not you”. And the lobbyists also say to the governor: “Don’t worry, work”. And when security workers make a decision, for instance, on Furgal, they don’t let the lobbyists in on it. At a moment they simply tell Moscow the regional leader crossed the line, a lot of “black balls” have accumulated, and this “thesis” can’t be defended anymore.
All these lobbyists and security workers’ tranquillity creates mythology among governors: “I can break rules a bit, and the system will save me”.
So can one not trust the system anymore?
One can trust in about 80% of cases — the system often saves governors and functionaries. But it denounces them in 20% of cases. And we see these 20%.
Why weren’t some governors arrested immediately, though the seriousness of accusations was claimed? For instance, Tula Governor Dudka was fired in 2011 and arrested for a 40-million bribe five months later. The arrest of Bryansk Governor Denin lasted for almost three years.
In the case of Denin, the rational mixed up with the irrational. What is rational here? The governor spent public money to support his own business — in this case, it was a poultry farm. Security workers were aware of this, of course, and kept an eye on Denin. But there was political feasibility until 2015 — there were agreements of Denin’s some lobbyists who participated in his interaction with Moscow. And these lobbyists were against till the end: it is pitiful to lose the business. And if you vouch for this person, and he turns out to be “bad”, the system responds to this very painfully. And if not the political underpinning, there could have been much more cases, they would have come out more often and would have been very high-profile.
The system often saves governors and functionaries in 80% of cases. But it denounces them in 20% of cases. And we see these 20%
“The president isn’t reported on bad events in the country”
Do lobbyists and security structures often fight because of governors?
This fight is constant — between the governor, his retinue, federal functionaries, the president’s close circle, federal security workers and so on. And keep in mind that precisely security workers were lobbyists in half of governors’ appointments. Hence the conflicts between the prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Investigation Committee and Federal Security Service. This is why many governors like Denin are kept to the utmost. If the Federal Security Service appointed Furgal, he probably had very good acquaintances in the Ministry of Internal Affairs who protected him. If the Ministry of Internal Affairs appoints a governor, it means the Federal Security Service backed this story.
Does President Putin play a pivotal role here?
No. The president is the last person who is brought up to date with some failures of a governor, he learns about them from a package of news.
As a rule, he has removed everybody who is arrested. What does it mean?
This means serious trust in the close circle, security workers. At the same time this, unfortunately, proves that the president isn’t reported on bad events in the country because he loves it and is a patriot. They don’t want to irritate the president.
Which governors did security structures take much time to work on according to your information?
Vyacheslav Gaizer from Komi (Editor’s Note: he was arrested in 2016 and sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment due to machinations at a billion rubles) was cultivated for five years. Why did it take so long? The power system is a very inert story. It never happens that an episode appeared (for instance, a governor gave his son general contracts to lay roads), and security workers decided to dismiss the governor, and he was immediately dismissed. A regional security worker will be said: “Have you gone mad? Calm down, keep tracking him, should we raise hell in half of the country because of a billion? Stop it”. Security workers keep accumulating everything inertly, but as I already said, they are final but not the only players in the episodes on Denin, Furgal, Solovyov.
This fight is constant — between the governor, his retinue, federal functionaries, the president’s close circle, federal security workers and so on. And keep in mind that precisely security workers were lobbyists in half of governors’ appointments. Hence the conflicts between the prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Investigation Committee and Federal Security Service
“Belykh got busted through stupidity”
Wasn’t the case of Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh framed up?
Belykh got busted through stupidity — a lot of regional leaders did such things in general, but in his case, it was a “deal” not with the Russian but a foreign citizen (Editor’s Note: Nikita Belykh was arrested in 2016 and imprisoned for eight years for a €100,000 bribe in exchange for patronage in an investment project). And the Federal Security Service supervises these cases in Russia — the bribe payer from Germany was tracked. While Nikita didn’t bother anybody — the stars just didn’t align.
If there might be a whole folder on regional leaders, why does everything come down to the only accusatory episode?
The system established such rules. For instance, everything starts to be relished after the last straw. As we recently heard, Furgal will be suspected not only of murders but also economic crimes at Amursteel. But the public won’t notice it because everything will mix with other news. A few days later, post-Furgal news will appear like the topic of Furgal came out after Yefremov’s traffic accident. And Furgal will stop being interesting, a shadowy work will begin, while it is usually hidden from the public.
Sergey, let’s remember that we were said on newspaper pages, TV screens about violations in regional management chaired by governors like Luzhkov, Abdulatipov, Merkushkin and even forgotten now-former Novgorod Governor Prusak had a good standing in the 90s. Why were they treated well, so to speak? What does it mean?
This shows that if such “episodes” are created with these people, the effect from the attenuation of the country’s management system, its public reproach in society will be bigger than positive effects. How should the system react to same Furgal? It should demonstrate that a high-handed functionary was caught. The system gets stronger with Furgal because functionaries are jailed, the system strengthens — it is a famous phenomenon. But this must be done with a low dose.
15 governors won’t be jailed. Even if we remember the removal of governors when 3-4 regional leaders or even more were dismissed in a month, the system did it very unwillingly because both resignations and arrests already can turn into a trend — let’s say, a trend named “the system has just thieves and criminals”. And the system doesn’t need it — it needs just dosed signals that will reinforce it.
15 governors won’t be jailed. Even if we remember the removal of governors when 3-4 regional leaders or even more were dismissed in a month, the system did it very unwillingly because both resignations and arrests already can turn into a trend — let’s say, a trend named “the system has just thieves and criminals”
“Politicians don’t have friendship — they can have just temporary projects”
Was Luzhkov’s arrest probably going too far?
It is anyway hard to imagine what they did to Mr Luzhkov in the end. One Kremlin tower promised him big help for supporting Medvedev, and it is here where Luzhkov failed — he was up for Medvedev’s second term.
But as it is known, Luzhkov had a conflict with Medvedev.
Luzhkov’s loyalty was tested. Moreover, politicians don’t have friendship — they can have just temporary projects.
What can you say about Prusak under whom Novgorod Oblast turned into a criminal hotbed?
As for Prusak, the authorities’ logic was the following here: Mr Prusak is invited to Moscow and given a folder to read about some “Armenian mafia” he was a friend of whom and allowed them to privatise whole Novgorod. While the governor says it isn’t true. And he is replied: “Okay, let’s return to the issue in a month”. A month later he is shown another two folders and said: “You will either go to prison with them or stop governing because federal structures accumulated too many “Novgorod cases”.
What does Prusak do? He resigns because the governor’s fork is simple: you either go to prison or leave the post. As Prusak was also a valuable specialist, he was invited to work in the Kremlin. The same happened, by the way, to Merkushkin from Samara, but here his age was the case. Two governors personally went to the president — they bent their knees like: “I am ready to leave the post but let me be saved for the good of Russia”, and they were calmly dismissed, and they became senators.
Can we say there are untouchable governors like Sobyanin, Kadyrov, Vorobyov?
It is clear that the long-ruling governor, head of Belgorod Oblast Savchenko is among them who has been chairing the region for almost 27 years?
Yes, Putin respects Savchenko due to his age. Also, the president respects people who have sat on their post “all their lives” and haven’t been caught.
How many people are untouchable in general? Five, ten?
Five or six, no more.
Luzhkov’s loyalty was tested. Moreover, politicians don’t have friendship — they can have just temporary projects
“A lot turns on lobbyists both in governors and other famous people’s cases”
Let’s go back to baddies. Why did Chelyabinsk Governor Yurevich avoid prison after high-profile accusations?
Yurevich simply gave them money — he gave some of his assets up (the same Makfa factory), and this allowed him to go to London.
If we’re talking about sentences, Sakhalin Governor Aleksandr Khoroshavin is the unluckiest one — he was imprisoned for 13 years for a bribe. Why was the sentence so cruel because same Gaizer was sentenced for a shorter term for creating a criminal community?
There is no politics here — Khoroshavin was given such a cruel term due to a wrong “interaction” of advocates, judges and supervisors of the process from security structures: it seems somebody didn’t agree with somebody. Khoroshavin’s family was probably asked to give up all assets, and they were against. And if no, it means no: here is the longest possible term. In fact, everything comes down to a matter of agreements — it is possible to come to an agreement even with a former governor: you are sentenced for 13 years but can be released in two years. A lot turns on lobbyists both in governors and other famous people’s cases. For instance, many are surprised at director Serebrennikov’s suspended sentence: it was proved he stole 129 million, but he has a suspended sentence. It is a “beautiful” story. Let’s see what will happen to Mikhail Yefremov’s sentence.
From the cruellest term to a story with exculpation — it is the case of head of Amur Oblast Leonid Korotkov in 2007 who decided to add 60 million spent on a football club to the regional energy tariff. Why was he exculpated? He didn’t return the money.
It was a too simple story, this is Korotkov had a light case.
Politicians have two types of legal protocols: obvious and non-obvious, and it is an art of the politician to remain obviously innocent. In other words, to make sure these “skeletons in the wardrobe” will never be taken out
“We will probably never learn what triggered the Furgal Case”
Let’s go back to Furgal’s arrest. In his case, we’re talking about crimes committed in the 2004-2005s — can’t this be revenge of Moscow for his independence, high popularity among the people, electoral resentment the power’s party faced during his governorate?
We will probably never learn what triggered the Furgal Case. But Furgal probably talked with security workers, and he was told about “his businesses”. He probably understood what he was and he wasn’t guilty of, understood that it was impossible to clean it today. He isn’t Sobyanin: cut your coat according to your cloth, while Furgal’s cloth wasn’t big. And understand that politically Sergey Furgal hasn’t done anything against the system.
The things that turned Furgal’s case into a criminal one have appeared recently — in 2019-2020. He was elected to the State Duma three times, while security workers check all candidates for the parliament. Did he shut all security workers’ mouths? Furgal was checked like others were checked. Politicians have two types of legal protocols: obvious and non-obvious, and it is an art of the politician to remain obviously innocent. In other words, to make sure a skeleton in the cupboard will never be taken out.
Perhaps, Furgal demonstrated his character in some key issues and the skeletons were taken out.
I don’t think he was invited to the Kremlin and said: “Mr Furgal, we need United Russia people in Khabarovsk because you are destroying the region”. This is unlikely. Furgal might have been done something foolish like one of the governors who was invited to the Kremlin two months to the imprisonment and said: “Read about your bad businesses with the bridge”, and he was said: “All this is a lie, it is generated by my enemies in the republic”. In answer, he was said: “Okay, work if this isn’t true”. And then he was caught. So here it is probably the same thing — Furgal was perhaps warned of some current violations.
Will the story with Furgal influence governors from the LDPR, CPRF, the LDPR itself, other regional leaders?
Judging by different sources, the story of Furgal has influenced a lot of governors — they are stressed, while the top of the system won, that’s to say, the president. Governors have been shown who wears the trousers. And the LDPR won’t be weakened — United Russia tests a lot of things on Zhirinovsky, which then turn into decisions, this is why he is needed.