Self-perpetuating Mayor. How Viktor Oblogin lost his power
The small country town of Gorno-Altaysk has been thrown into confusion for the last several months. Viktor Oblogin, who has been the Town Mayor for the last 25 years, faces criminal charges and is currently under house arrest.
The former Mayor is charged with crimes usual for bureaucrats of his level, such as fraud and abuse of office. Oblogin trying to offer excuses reads like a joke. The bureaucrat stole a Toyota Land Cruiser worth more than 1.5 million rubles using his position between April 2012 and August 2013, according to the investigators. The car belonged to the Gorod Gorno-Altaysk Municipal Entity. He did so by forging documents and understating the car’s price twofold. This resulted in the amount stated being stolen from the town budget. Oblogin claimed he did not commit theft but instead bought out the car from his driver who had purchased the car from the Municipal Entity but later realized it was too expensive to maintain due to high transportation tax and repair parts cost. This made him offer the car to his superior, a former automotive engineer. Oblogin did as he would in his young days and repaired running gear, replaced compression seal fittings, bearings, and welded the car frame with his own hands and at his own expense. He later shared the story with the town residents through his public affairs office. It is believed he hoped residents will buy it and not suspect him of corruption.
However, Viktor Oblogin did not quite manage to offer excuses for the second charge, namely illegal confiscation of money allocated in the framework of the Altay Republic Small & Medium Enterprises Support program. The former bureaucrat illegally confiscated money from regional and federal budgets, effectively demanding tribute from the local businessmen from 2011 to 2014, according
to the investigators. That is a common practice. Businessmen would only receive subsidies if they would return no less than 20% of the amount received. Money was allocated in the framework of the purpose-oriented regional program signed into law on August 19, 2010. The Mayor’s Office received more than 92 million rubles under the program. A subsidy could not exceed 300 thousand rubles, according to the Gorno-Altaysk Administration ordinance as of December 2, 2011. Thus, the office stole more than 15 million rubles from the budget over the period of 4 years.
Employees of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation launched the criminal cases in March 2016. The Altay Republic capital’s mayor was charged under part 3, Art. 159 and part 2, Art. 286 of the Russian Criminal Code (Swindling committed by a person through his official position, as well as on a large scale and Abuse of Official Powers respectively) as early as June 2016. The bureaucrat was dismissed from the office and taken into custody. Oblogin who governed the town for 25 years will spend the rest of the time left before his trial under house arrest.
Viktor Aleksandrovich Oblogin was born on January 7, 1951 in the Kholmechi village, the Bryansk Region, in a family of public officers. He worked as a machinist and engineering technologist until 1980 when he started making a career in civil service (the Gorno-Altaysk Town Committee). He became the second secretary of the Town of Gorno-Altaysk Town Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1991. He later got promoted to the Chairman of the Congress of People's Deputies of the Gorno-Altaysk Town Committee. Oblogin became the town mayor as soon as June 1992. The town won the Cleanest Russian Middle Sized Municipal Entity Award 3 years in a row (2011, 2012, and 2013). The town won the Global Eco Brand Award in 2012. Vladimir Putin admitted Viktor Oblogin to the President of Russia’s Council on Local Governance Development.
Nikolay Kolesnichenko, the Gorno-Altaysk Vice-Mayor, being accused of corruption in relation to construction of housing for orphans in January 2014 became the canary in the coal mine for the Town Hall. The housing was commissioned in 2008-2010. However, it later turned out not to comply with the design and sanitary codes. It was dangerous to live in. The Gorno-Altaysk Administration officials were the ones to inspect it. This led to violation of rights and lawful interests of the owners, namely 12 orphans and children without parental care, as well as of the Administration. Damage done to the citizens was estimated at about 650.000 rubles (money they spent on fixing construction faults at their own expense). The Administration lost much more money – 7 million rubles (embezzlement of budget funds, embezzlement of the republic budget subventions, costs associated with compensation payments to the orphans).
Kolesnichenko was charged with Abuse of official powers resulted in grave consequences and given a 3-year suspended sentence with 2-year probation period and 1-year debarment from holding public authority, organizational and management, and business and administrative jobs in civil service and local governance entities.
However, Viktor Oblogin, the convict’s superior, refused to recognize his guilt and dismiss him. Kolesnichenko kept his position until Oblogin was arrested himself, acting as the mayor for several weeks afterwards despite being prohibited from doing so. The ruling regarding him took legal effect in the end of June 2016. He had to leave the office, since he did not have an influential patron in the Administration anymore. Viktor Emelyanov, another vice mayor, took over then.
However, it was not long before he left the office, too. The town was struck by yet another corruption scandal once more. Ekaterina Petrenko, the Department of Education Head, ended up being in the focus this time.
She is suspected of taking a bribe in the amount of 800 thousand rubles. Petrenko assisted in municipal contracts and supply agreements for goods provision to the Gorno-Altaysk school awarding in exchange for money, according to the local media outlets.
Olga Safronova, the Altay Republic Head’s protégé, was appointed the acting mayor a month ago. However, Oblogin is still listed as the town mayor on the town website despite this.
Oblogin claims criminal accusations he was charged with are frivolous. He published the following message on the Town Hall web-site in the wake of his house search conducted in March 2016: “I was visited by representatives of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation intent on searching my house today at 6:20 AM. I am inclined to think it was done on command of my political opponents due to police officers’ aggressive behavior and far-fetched reasoning. I think this is associated with the upcoming Parliamentary Election. I am being forced to enter it by many. However, I stand by what I said earlier. I do not intend on participating in the Elections as of now.”
However, he later decided to participate in the Elections, although he only ranked 4th in the single member constituency during the past United Russia’s primaries. Oblogin claimed his loss was due to election fraud and bribery of voters. It is worth mentioning he accused his fellow party members of the said crimes. Him trying to display the town residents’ support despite criminal accusations was one of the reasons behind the loss, according to local analytics. But it did not work out. Moreover, his accusations were looked upon by the party leaders. His party membership was suspended immediately upon his arrest.
Aleksandr Starikov, the Head of Investigations Directorate of the ICR
The mayor made even more mistakes in the spring. They contributed to him losing the office, too. For example, he tried starting a media war with representatives of the Republican Investigations Directorate as well as with Aleksandr Starikov, its Head. Oblogin publically accused the investigators of his case of being political sell outs. He then proceeded to going to the Russian Federation Presidential Executive Office and filing a complaint against law enforcement agencies. He filed a complaint to the Prosecutor-General's Office, too. The disgraced Mayor accused regional law enforcement officers of illegal evidence collection and intimidation of witnesses in his criminal case while in Moscow. He gave the case of Aleksey Pleshkov, the Town Administration Transportation Department Head, who worked as the Town Hall garage manager several years ago, as an example. The man testified against the Oblogin only to write a report for the mayor stating he had been forced to do so 2 weeks later. There is only one instance of the Regional Investigative Committee getting involved with the media war; it stated it was indeed acting against an order. But not a private order, but a governmental one, consisting in fighting corruption on behalf of the people.
However, Oblogin failed to persuade Moscow officials to clamp down on colonel of justice Starikov. Neither he was able to gain political support from the Kremlin. Moreover, his efforts backfired: Aleksandr Starikov got his term in the office prolongated for 5 more years after several Gorno-Altaysk entrepreneurs addressed the Russian Federation President asking for protection for the town and Mayor from the local law enforcement officers abuse. The actions taken by the Kremlin were eloquent of who it supported.
However, there were those, who supported Oblogin in Gorno-Altaysk. Some of them even proposed renaming a town street in his honor. Za Resbubliku Public Organization arranged a rally in his support in the beginning of July. About 300 people signed a resolution for creation of a public committee for Oblogin defense. The rally participants also addressed the President Vladimir Putin, asking him to send an independent panel of experts that would monitor the situation and resolve the region’s problems. The fuss surrounding the mayor is nothing more than an attempt to distract the public from the region’s permanent (poaching in nature reserves, cedar forest devastation, construction of Altay pit (the troublesome lake in a special economic zone), a biotech plant, and a waste recycling plant that required multi-million investment and are yet to be commissioned) problems, according to Vladimir Petrov, the former Republic government Head and one of the rally organizers. Oblogin fell victim to struggle for the town he did not want to hand over to Varangians, according to his supporters.
Aleksandr Berdnikov, the Altay Republic Head
Oblogin has never stood well with the Republic government, according to local experts. They wanted to remove him from the office as early as 2008-2009. However, he managed to keep it for 25 years. He is one of the few people who managed to sustain a high-ranking job for such a long time in the present day Russian Federation. However, eventually he could not face off Altay Republic higher forces. These people attempted getting their hands on financial flows and local economic mainstays on multiple occasions, according to the disgraced Mayor. “You can see for yourself how it ends in cases of other cities and towns, where water, electricity, and public services organizations become private entities, whose new owners deliberately bankrupt them and sell their assets. They do not care about people and cities and towns that rely on them”, Mr Oblogin said, according to the Bankfaks media outlet.
Aleksandr Berdnikov, the current Head of Altay Republic, is ready to appoint one of his loyal candidates as the town mayor, according to local media outlets. They even name certain contenders (Olga Saphronova, the Region government deputy chairman; Evgeny Ponpa, the Mayminsky District Head; Evgeny Larin, the Republic tourism minister). However, Mr Berdnikov refuted allegations of him intending on “seizing” the town. The town needs immediate rescue from economic and political collapse, according to Aleksandr Berdnikov. There is nothing to seize in the town that is currently on the verge of bankruptcy.