Elite Rodnichok: Murmansk Minister of Environment dismissed amid scandal with departmental cottage community in forest park 

Elite Rodnichok: Murmansk Minister of Environment dismissed amid scandal with departmental cottage community in forest park
The legal address of the departmental noncommercial cottage partnership matches the permanent residential address of Elvira Makarova Photo: The CrimeRussia

A CrimeRussia source believes that the information compromising officials of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region that has ultimately led to the dismissal of Elvira Makarova was published just at the right time. The law enforcement structures were aware of the situation with Rodnichok cottage noncommercial partnership long time ago.

To protect the environment effectively, it is necessary to be closer to the nature. Former and acting members of the Government of the Murmansk Region have vividly demonstrated this trend, so popular among civil servants.

A corruption scandal with a cottage community built in the protected forest park zone near Murmansk whose founders are former and current regional officials has resulted in the dismissal of Elvira Makarova, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region.

The events preceding the disgraceful termination of Makarova had escalated very rapidly.

On May 22, Bloger51.com, a popular Murmansk web site belonging to ‘local Navalny’ Aleksander Serebryanikov, has published a document – an additional agreement to the lease agreement for the forest parcel located in the protected forest park zone near Lake Kildinskoe in the Kola district.

The document states that the parcel with the area of almost 5 ha was leased out in 2007 to Rodnichok (Springlet) cottage partnership by the Murmansk Forest District subordinate to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region “for recreation purposes”.

However, Article 105 of the Forest Code of the Russian Federation states that all economic activities, except for haymaking and bee keeping, are prohibited in protected forest park zones – especially forest cutting and capital construction.

It is known that cuttings had been performed on the territory of this cottage partnership and it was even brought to administrative liability under part 1 of Article 19.5 of the Code of Administrative Offences of the Russian Federation. The Arbitration Court of the Murmansk Region has ordered Rodnichok to pay a fine of 6 thousand rubles ($105.9) and clean logging residues that, according to the lawsuit filed by the Murmansk Forest District, were left in large amounts on the forest parcel.

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A cottage community has been discovered in the forest park zone

Then it turned out that the cottage cooperative established on protected lands was founded by high-ranked officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region. Some of them have already resigned, while others continue working in the Ministry. The Consolidated State Register of Legal Entities lists 11 individuals whose names and positions leave no doubts: the civil servants were so eager to protect the environment that decided to do this noble job personally, together with their families, pets, and visiting guests. 

The register of Rodnichok founders includes Elvira Makarova, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region; her first deputy Oksana Nosareva, and late Aleksei Smirnov, ex-Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region, who was killed in a MI-8 helicopter crash in 2014 together with Vice Governor Sergei Skomorokhov and 10 more people.

The list of cottage owners includes Igor Konyukhov, current Head of the Department of Nature Use and Permits of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region; Marina Shipugina, Deputy Head of the Department of Budget Process and Economic Analysis of the same Ministry; and Fedor Shveitser who used to be the Acting Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region after the death of Smirnov and became a deputy of Makarova after her appointment the Minister.

According to the documents, Aleksander Kobytev, ex-First Deputy Minister of Energy and Housing and Utilities Infrastructure of the Murmansk Region, chairs the management board of this elite cottage community. The Murmansk media wrote that Kobytev has lost his post in October 2016 following a session chaired by Nikolai Tsukanov, Plenipotentiary Presidential Envoy in the Northwest Federal District. Another interesting detail: the legal address of Rodnichok noncommercial cottage partnership matches the permanent residential address of Elvira Makarova, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region.

Of course, the publication about a ‘small’ (seven football fields) paradise for governmental servants established not far from Murmansk has caused a public outcry.

Paradise in a hut

Кобытев

Aleksander Kobytev, Chairman of the Board of Rodnichok noncommercial cottage partnership

Shortly after the publication of Rodnichok foundation documents at Bloger51.com, Aleksander Kobytev, chairman of its management board named in the above-mentioned additional agreement, has made a ‘rebuttal’.

Without providing any evidence (the further inquest has determined that there were no evidences at all), Kobytev has stated that the acting members of the Regional Government are currently neither founders nor even members of Rodnichok cottage noncommercial partnership.

The chairman of the cottage noncommercial partnership has emphasized that the information about the founders of the cottage cooperative “had been entered into the Consolidated State Register of Legal Entities 10 years ago and was never updated since then”. According to Kobytev, the cottage community was established for recreation – i.e. not for economic activities, while the structures built on the territory of Rodnichok are “temporary”, which is permitted by the current forest legislation.

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The troubled Ministry took a stand in support of the chairman of Rodnichok. The official reaction of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region was swift and tough. The Ministry has categorically stated that “ the sensation has been picked out of nose”, that the officials from the cottage noncommercial partnership established in 2007 “had no relation to the forest sphere” and allegedly “are not founders of the partnership” anymore. The lease agreement was allegedly signed on the basis of a public tender. Similarly with Kobytev, representatives of the Ministry have emphasized the “temporary nature” of structures built on the territory of Rodnichok – purportedly, there are plenty of such structures build in the forest park zone in accordance with Article 41 of the Forest Code of the Russian Federation.

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Picture taken from the drone aircraft

Too bad, but neither Kobytev, nor representatives of the conservation agency, had bothered to review the documents compromising their colleagues. These documents include, inter alia, aerial photos taken from the quadcopter belonging to Aleksander Serebryanikov and showing crystal clear that the structures erected on the territory of Rodnichok are neither temporaries nor huts. Nice homes of the forest settlement demonstrate all capital construction features – from foundations to fireplaces.

You can't chop wood...

The Murmansk residents have noted this and unleashed harsh criticism in their online comments: “Crooks, when you burst with greed? When are you going to be executed by shooting? On top of everything else, they cut the forest”.

One thing led to another, and soon the Governor was also mentioned in the comments: the people remembered the friendship between Elvira Makarova and almighty Marina Kovtun. They also remembered that two women were seen together with major general Igor Batalov, Head of the Administration of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) of the Russian Federation in the Murmansk Region  and a big fan of fishing trips to undisturbed sites of the Kola Peninsula by the service helicopter. One of these women looked like Marina Kovtun, Governor of the Murmansk Region, while the other one looked like Elvira Makarova, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region. Further comments on the Internet were outright riotous: “the lawlessness of Makarova in the conservation sphere remains unpunished because the Governor and chief policeman of the region cover up her wrongdoings”.

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Marina Kovtun and Igor Batalov

For Governor Marina Kovtun, any negative references to her person, not to speak of outright corruption insinuations, are not only detrimental, but totally unacceptable – especially in the context of a petition for her dismissal “for abuses in the housing and utilities sphere” posted at Change.org (what a coincidence!) on the same day with the article compromising officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

The regional head is desperately trying to offset the criticism and struggles for her image. She is not totally unsuccessful, by the way, – the growth of region’s own revenues in spring 2017 and intensive residential housing constructions were credited to her. She has even risen in the National Rating of Governors (from the 85th position to the 76th) – although still remains among the ‘lowest ten’. The scandal with cottages belonging to officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment could damage her already-tarnished karma – therefore, the decision on the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment has been made with lightning speed.

...without making the chips fly

The ‘case of Elvira Makarova’ has been seriously discussed at the regional level on the very next day after the publication of Rodnichok documents. On May 23, the flagrant situation was discussed at a session of the Governmental Commission for Coordination of Anti-Corruption Activities chaired by Governor Marina Kovtun. It was her initiative to examine the situation with the cottage community in the forest park zone, while the Prosecutor’s office has requested to dismiss the Minister for discrediting circumstances (to prohibit Makarova from returning to the governmental service in the future).

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Elvira Makarova was on a sick leave and refused to confirm her dismissal for a while

The weak ‘refutation’ arguments provided by the Chairman of the cottage noncommercial partnership and representatives of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment could not convince the Commission. Therefore, the verdict for Makarova was harsh: “in the examined case, elements of violations of the service code of conduct committed by a person holding a governmental position have been identified”. On May 26, it became known that the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region is to be relieved of her post as per Governor’s decision.

Well-informed sources had initially considered Oksana Nosareva, acting first deputy of Elvira Makarova, the most likely candidate for her position – but apparently, they missed her name on the list of Rodnichok founders. Then the Government decided to appoint another deputy of Makarova, Lyudmila Satanovskaya, the Acting Minister of Natural Resources and Environment. Currently, the Government of the Murmansk Region is examining candidacies for the post of the regional environmental minister; the most likely contenders are Valery Panteleev, Deputy of the Regional Duma and Chairman of the Duma Committee for Nature Use, Environment, Fishery, and Agroindustrial Complex, and Vladimir Chizhov, Director of Pasvik State Nature Reserve.

‘Leak’ acknowledged 

An interesting detail: according to Aleksander Serebryanikov, editor of Bloger51.com, the document at the root of the scandal in the Government of the Murmansk Region was received via so-called ‘rumors receiver’ – a special section on the web site designed for anonymous ‘leaks’. The creator of the site claims that the person sending information though this section can not be tracked. It is hard to believe that the document has arrived to the ‘rumors receiver’ just at the right time.

A well-informed resident of the Murmansk region told the CrimeRussia on condition of anonymity that Rodnichok noncommercial partnership had attracted the attention of the Murmansk Prosecutor’s Office and the Regional Directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation back in 2015. According to the source, Rodnichok is not the only such cottage settlement established by governmental officials in protected forests surrounding Murmansk – but somehow the law enforcement authorities have focused their efforts on it. More specifically, Rodnichok became their first target because of its ‘golden’ list of founders. The source states that at that time, after a number of checks, some officials – cottage owners – had no choice but to withdraw from the list of Rodnichok founders to hush up the scandal.

In addition, searches and seizures of documents performed by the FSB Directorate in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Murmansk Region in May 2016 were also indirectly linked with Rodnichok cottage noncommercial partnership – i.e. with its founders holding supreme positions in the Ministry.

Later Elvira Makarova refuted the very fact of searches, while the Ministry claimed that the FSB operatives had come to perform “a scheduled check due to the fire season”. But the FSB Directorate for the Murmansk Region has officially stated that “the check was performed in relation to the received information about possible violations of the law during the distribution and usage of forest lands”.

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German Ivanov

In fact, the current scandal with the cottage settlement established by officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is the aftermath of events that had occurred in the last year. Apparently, it is going to escalate much further. According to the source, the high-profile dismissal of Elvira Makarova is not the last termination in the Regional Government in relation to Rodnichok cottage noncommercial partnership. Following requests from voters, German Ivanov, Deputy of the Regional Duma and TV personality, has addressed the Regional Prosecutor’s Office. The Deputy believes that the functionaries had abused their official powers and requests the watchdog authority to check the usage of forest lands for construction of cottage communities. In other words, following the terminations in the environmental agency, criminal cases may be instituted as well.

It is always better to protect your own assets

It is necessary to note that seizures of public lands by officials from all kinds of governmental agencies is a widespread phenomenon in Russia. It may take various forms: some civil servants privatize the land, while others use it on a leasehold basis – but this does not make much difference.

The last such incident went public in autumn 2016: a cottage belonging to colonel general Nikolai Kozik, Head of the Department of Border Guard of the Border Guard Service of the FSB, was discovered in the restricted zone of engineering and technical facilities near the Russian–Finnish border where civil construction is prohibited. However, the FSB and Chief Military Prosecutor's Office have found a solution for the delicate situation: they moved the border 4 km further from the general’s cottage.

Another illustrative example is the story of Kalchuga 4 cottage noncommercial partnership that went public in summer 2015 after an inquest performed by Novaya Gazeta.

It turned out that the territory of a former summer camp for children of officers of the USSR Committee for State Security with the area of 4.98 ha located in the Odintsovo district was initially transferred into the municipal ownership and then allocated for cottage construction and provided to Kalchuga 4 cottage noncommercial partnership for free limited-time use. The list of Kalchuga 4 founders included Sergei Doronin, Deputy Head of the Financial and Economic Administration of one of the FSB services (as of the end of 2014), and Sergei Kachushkin, ex-Deputy Head of a separate administration in the FSB central apparatus. The 22 lots of the cottage noncommercial partnership were distributed among top FSB officers and then sold to structures controlled by oligarch Igor Kesaev at an average price of $100 thousand per 100 square meters.

High-ranked functionaries from other governmental agencies take good care of themselves as well. The CrimeRussia wrote earlier that Gennady Lopatin, currently a Deputy Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, while being the Head of the Department of Inventory and Logistics Management of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, had organized and implemented a scheme to privatize lands in elite Malakhovka township in the Moscow region for next to nothing; later two mansions have been built on these lands for his daughters. In 2003, Lopatin has registered Kraskovsky Obryv noncommercial partnership located in one of the most prestigious parts of Malakhovka.

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Mansion in Malakhovka belonging to a daughter of Gennady Lopatin

Some time later, the cottage partnership has been liquidated as per decision of its founders, and its former members – high-ranked officials from the Ministry of Justice (four Deputy Ministers and several heads of departments, including Lopatin) – have ‘inherited’ luxury lots in Malakhovka acquired by the members of Kraskovsky Obryv much cheaper in comparison with their market prices. 

All the above examples demonstrate that the current land legislation has plenty of loopholes used by corrupt officials for personal gain. Unfortunately, the majority of episodes involving illegal privatization of public lands remain unexposed. To eliminate numerous ‘shady schemes’, both the Land and Forest Codes of the Russian Federation require considerable modernization.

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