Taken as ‘prisoner’. Pskov Vice Governor locked up in Kresty
There are plenty of suspicious details in the criminal case against Aleksander Kuznetsov, ex-Vice Governor of the Pskov Region. First, it was instituted in relation to a very old episode. Second, the charges are full of inconsistencies. Third, journalists immediately become aware of details that are supposed to be kept secret. The Governor of the Pskov Region was the first to report the arrest of his subordinate. Many officials from the team of the previous Governor believe that Kuznetsov is just an interim target for the law enforcement authorities, and his trial is highly unlikely. The Vice Governor has been locked up in Kresty Pretrial Detention Center to extract from his testimonies against more high-ranked figures. Who wants Aleksander Kuznetsov to testify? And what are the true targets of the investigators?
On December 14, 2018, operatives of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation detained Aleksander Kuznetsov, Vice Governor of the Pskov Region supervising the housing and utility sector, transport, road infrastructure, power systems, communications, and tariff setting. According to Svetlana Petrenko, an official representative of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (ICR), the Main Investigations Directorate of the ICR has instituted against the Vice Governor a criminal case under part 6 of Article 290 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (bribe-taking on an especially large scale). The investigation believes that in 2013, the director of a construction company has transferred to Kuznetsov a residential home in Pskov as a bribe – its purchase price was at least 1.5 million rubles ($22 thousand) lower than the market rates.
After the arrest, Kuznetsov has been escorted to St. Petersburg. On December 15, the United Press Service of St. Petersburg Courts announced that the Primorsky District Court has extended the detention term for the Vice Governor by 72 hours. During the court session held to determine the pretrial restrictions, it became known what episode has resulted in the institution of the criminal case.
Aleksander Kuznetsov, ex-Vice Governor of the Pskov Region
According to the investigation, Kuznetsov received a bribe from Evgeny Ochnev, Executive Director of WestStroy Limited Liability Company. Back in October 2011, the official’s wife has signed with Ochnev an agreement of purchase and sale of a residential home built by WestStroy at a price of 6.35 million rubles ($93 thousand). By March 2012, Tatiana Kuznetsova has transferred to Ochnev 5 million rubles ($73.2 thousand) as the payment under the above agreement. The remaining balance was 1.35 million rubles ($19.8 thousand). However, instead of paying it, Aleksander Kuznetsov decided to act in a different way.
In early 2013, the freshly-appointed Vice Governor met with Ochnev and offered him a deal: the businessman ‘forgives’ the outstanding balance to the wife of Kuznetsov, while the official provides his ‘patronage’ to Ochnev and organizations represented by him. Kuznetsov had promised the businessman inter alia to secure for him profitable contracts with the Pskov Regional Administration and assist in settlement of issues with regional and local authorities.
The investigators believe that Ochnev has accepted this offer, and Kuznetsov lived up to his promises. Using his official powers, the Vice Governor has arranged the victory of WestStroy Limited Liability Company at an open tender to build the therapeutic pavilion for Strugi Krasnye District Hospital State Budgetary Healthcare Institution. In February 2013, WestStroy has signed with the Capital Construction Directorate of the Pskov Region State Budgetary Institution a contract worth 40.5 million rubles ($593.2 thousand).
Aleksander Kuznetsov was born in 1977. In 2001, graduated from the St. Petersburg State University, Pskov State Polytechnic Institute as a mechanical engineer. In 2001–2006, worked as a Transport Master, Chief Engineer, and Executive Director at the Porkhovsky Branch of Pskovoblgaz Open Joint Stock Company. Since 2007, worked at various position in the Pskov Regional Administration: in the State Committee for Construction, Public and Utility Sector, and State Construction and Residential Supervision and State Committee of the Pskov Region for Tariffs and Power Sector. In late 2010, was appointed the Chairman of the State Committee of the Pskov Region for Tariffs and Power Sector. In February 2012, became a Vice Governor of the Pskov Region. Married, has two children.
Shortly after that, Sledak (@sledak_shepnul) Telegram channel has published photos of the home allegedly purchased by Kuznetsov with a huge discount. The property is located in Pskov on Petropavlovskaya street – on the bank of the Velikaya River, in the water conservation zone. This is one of the most prestigious Pskov neighborhoods; finished homes there cost 10 million rubles ($146.5 thousand) at an average. The Kuznetsov family occupies an apartment in a semi-detached house; the living space of their residence is 258 square meters.
Kuznetsov had denied any guilt at the court session held to determine his pretrial restrictions. Pln-Pskov.ru portal reported, citing its sources, that the Kuznetsov family claims that the residential home was purchased with discount due to a number of deficiencies left by the builders.
At the first hearing, the detention term for the official was extended by 72 hours. On December 18, the court has remanded Kuznetsov in custody for two months; he will spend this time in the Pretrial Detention Center № 1 of St. Petersburg. The defense had asked to limit the pretrial restrictions to home arrest. Tatiana Kuznetsova has even rented an apartment in Shushary township where her husband could live for the duration of the investigation. However, the court has satisfied the motion brought by the state prosecution.
Searches and seizures of documents have been performed in the Vice Governor’s office and his private home. An ID card issued to Kuznetsov by the Estonian authorities was found inter alia. Such an ID indicates that the Russian official has a residential permit in Estonia. Sledak (@sledak_shepnul) Telegram channel published a photo of the card.
Pln-Pskov.ru portal claims, citing its sources, that the ID found in the office of Kuznetsov has already expired. However, the spouse of Kuznetsov and their children have valid Estonian passports. This is because Tatiana Kuznetsova is a native of the Pechory district, Pskov region that used to be a part of Estonia.
Another local news portal has reported, citing its source, that two expensive watches worth much more than 1.35 million rubles ($19.8 thousand) incriminated to the official were found during searches. However, Evgeny Zobov, an attorney for Kuznetsov, claims that this news is just an attempt to manipulate the public opinion. “In fact, these watches are not that expensive; their cost is average; and many people have such models. The investigation ‘designates’ them expensive with a sole purpose to create an impression that Aleksander Kuznetsov lives beyond income. However, all his expenses are determined by his revenues,” – the lawyer says. Zobov intends to appeal the court decision; he considers the prosecution of his client a result of slander. Many details in the case against the Vice Governor indicate that the defense attorney is right.
For instance, the United Press Service of St. Petersburg Courts has provided the Taxpayer Identification Number of WestStroy Limited Liability Company whose representative had allegedly given a bribe to Kuznetsov – 6027054477. However, the organization with this Taxpayer Identification Number had been winning tenders and receiving governmental contracts long before the alleged ‘patronage’ of Kuznetsov. In 2011, WestStroy Limited Liability Company has won three tenders carried out by the Capital Construction Directorate of the Pskov Region State Budgetary Institution, including capital renovations of a kindergarten in Pskov for 18.3 million rubles ($268.1 thousand) and renovations of the Children’s Municipal Polyclinic № 2 for 46.2 million rubles ($676.7 thousand). Furthermore, WestStroy has won the tender to build the therapeutic pavilion for Strugi Krasnye District Hospital State Budgetary Healthcare Institution for 84.6 million rubles ($1.2 million) back in 2011. According to the governmental acquisitions web site, WestStroy Limited Liability Company has completed the construction of the hospital pavilion and received the payment in full in August 2012 – a year before the ‘tempting’ offer made by the Vice Governor. But could Kuznetsov assist the company in winning an additional profitable tender in 2013? Now he could not: WestStroy has performed for the Capital Construction Directorate of the Pskov Region only the three above-listed contracts.
On the other hand, another West-Stroy Limited Liability Company (Taxpayer Identification Number 6027142941) was established in 2012; its Executive Director is Evgeny Ochnev. In 2012–2013, this twin structure has signed 6 contracts with the Capital Construction Directorate of the Pskov Region, including the construction of a therapeutic pavilion for Strugi Krasnye District Hospital for 40 million rubles ($585.9 thousand) in 2012 and construction of another therapeutic pavilion for Strugi Krasnye District Hospital for 40.5 million rubles ($593.2 thousand) in 2013. So, what organization had enjoyed the ‘patronage’ of Kuznetsov? And what contract was awarded thanks to his assistance? How many therapeutic pavilions has Strugi Krasnye District Hospital? How many payments for the construction works were made from the budget? And why the amounts are matching – some 80 million rubles ($1.2 million) for WestStroy and two contracts worth some 40 million rubles ($585.9 thousand) each for West-Stroy?
There are plenty of weird nuances in this complicated case. Not only local journalists are well-aware of its progress – but Fontanka.ru Internet portal as well. On the next day after the arrest of Kuznetsov, it has published details that rarely become known to the public. For instance, Fontanka.ru wrote that the Second Investigations Department of the Main Investigations Directorate of the ICR handles the inquest against the former Pskov Vice Governor. Investigator Vyacheslav Ignashkin has launched it on December 12, 2018. The portal provides the precise address of the property belonging to the Kuznetsov family – 58 Petropavlovskaya street – and notes that, after the arrangements made between Ochnev and Kuznetsov, the sale price in the agreement of purchase and sale signed with his wife Tatiana has been changed from 6.35 to 6 million rubles ($93–87.9 thousand). The spouse of the official is the owner of the residence in the semi-detached home.
According to Fontanka.ru, the criminal case against Kuznetsov was instituted following a criminal complaint submitted to the FSB by Evgeny Ochnev – the businessman has reported a bribe extortion episode. As a bribe-giver who has voluntarily reported a crime, he was relieved from criminal liability. However, the Internet portal does not specify why has Ochnev reported Kuznetsov to the FSB only in 2018 – five years after the alleged demand of the official to ‘forgive’ the outstanding balance to his wife.
In addition, Fontanka.ru became aware that Dmitry Spivak, ex-Director of the Capital Construction Directorate of the Pskov Region State Budgetary Institution, has testified against Kuznetsov as well. Journalists managed to collect a surprisingly large amount of information within a very short time. For instance, that Kuznetsov had visited Estonia more than 10 times in 2017 and 6 times in 2018. That Vice Governor’s wife Tatiana Kuznetsova used to work at the Pskov Administration and in June 2018 became a Deputy Director for Construction of Kvartal commercial organization with a salary of 30 thousand rubles ($440) per month. That the spouse of the official has Estonian citizenship by birth and accrued Russian citizenship after the marriage. Such a surprising awareness of journalists presents quite a new view of the ‘secrecy of investigation’.
Some experts were also surprised by the charges laid against the Pskov Vice Governor. For instance, political analyst Dmitry Solonnikov cannot understand how are the law enforcement authorities going to prove that the Kuznetsov family has purchased the house at an artificially low price. "The allegation brought against the Vice Governor – acquisition of a home at an artificially low price – is a very questionable matter. Was the price indeed too low or too high? Who determines the value?" – Solonnikov asks. Valery Lesnikov, Head of the Pskov Regional Branch of OPORA RUSSIA All-Russian Nongovernmental Organization of Small and Medium Business, shares his doubts: "A lower price of a residential home is not a reason for bribe-taking accusations because the current cost of a square meter of living space is 30–40% lower than four years ago, and apartments are sold for less. Therefore, it is rather a commercial arrangement – not a purchase discount. Personally, I can't see any logic here”.
There is another interesting detail in the case against Kuznetsov. Normally, journalists are the first to report arrests of high-ranked officials, while the local authorities reluctantly confirm such news much later.
However, this time, the Pskov Regional Administration has informed journalists of the arrest of Kuznetsov. Mikhail Vedernikov, the Governor of the Pskov Region since September 2018, has emphasized that he “is working on the current situation in close coordination with the law enforcement authorities”. On the same day, Vedernikov has removed his deputy from office.
Mikhail Vedernikov, Governor of the Pskov Region, and Aleksander Kuznetsov
In that context, the stance of the defense attorney seems pretty convincing – as well as the version provided to The CrimeRussia by a well-aware source in the Administration of the Pskov Region. According to him, the prosecution of Kuznetsov was initiated by Vedernikov displeased by the existence of a deputy appointed by his predecessor Andrei Turchak. The inconsistencies in the charges laid against Kuznetsov are caused by the excessive enthusiasm of the law enforcement structures ignoring details and acting under the principle: “dig hard enough, and you can find dirt on anyone”. The charges are based on events dated 2013 to avoid an accidental implication of anyone from the new Governor’s team. The investigators have even shared with journalists the particulars of the case: photos of the ID and home, rumors about the expensive watches, names of complainants and witnesses, etc.
Mikhail Vedernikov, Governor of the Pskov Region
However, many officials of the Pskov Regional Administration appointed during the rule of the previous Governor believe that the story with Kuznetsov is a way more than just an attempt of Vedernikov to replace an unwanted deputy with his ‘henchman’ and concurrently gain the reputation of an anti-corruption crusader.
According to The CrimeRussia source, the regional functionaries have no doubt that Kuznetsov has been locked up in Kresty to extract from him compromising materials against somebody. The question is: against whom?
The former Vice Governor must understand how hard is the evidence collected by the investigators. They have testimonies of ‘bribe-giver’ Ochnev and Spivak, ex-Director of the Capital Construction Directorate. They have the agreement of purchase and sale with reduced purchase price. Finally, they have his Estonian residential permit, which is prohibited for a high-ranked civil servant. In that situation, should Kuznetsov be offered to make a plea deal and testify against his former colleagues, he has no choice but to do so. The main question is: whom the ex-Vice Governor has to turn in? May it be the former Governor of the Pskov Region transferred ‘with promotion’ to Moscow and appointed the General Secretary of Edinaya Rossia (United Russia) Party? The arrival of a young and ambitious novice provincial politician has reportedly displeased many people in the Presidential close circle.
By the way, Pskov Mayor Ivan Tsetsersky has already spoken in defense of the former Vice Governor on the air of Echo of Moscow radio station and expressed the hope that the law enforcement authorities sort the things out. “Kuznetsov never was a scum,” – Tsetsersky said. On the other hand, the official never was a hero. It is unlikely that he refuses to testify against former comrades under the threat of prosecution. A New Year spent in Kresty is a very compelling argument.
Seventeen Russian Governors are facing criminal prosecution for bribe-taking. The rest of them may be jailed any time for exceedance of official powers. At least, Nezygar (@russica2) Telegram channel claims so citing an unidentified source in the law enforcement structures. However, according to that source, it is currently prohibited to prosecute top-level officials. In 2018, the operatives had only searched offices of Vice Governors or Deputy Ministers – not their bosses. The CrimeRussia found out what supreme functionaries are on the hook of the law enforcement authorities and may be immediately indicted if the President orders so.