Governor hunt. Slaughter of hibernated bear backfires on Levchenko
The slaughter of a helpless bear in its winter lair. An attempt to ‘pump out’ Lake Baikal to China. ‘Patronage’ of corrupt officials. Provision of governmental contracts to affiliated companies. Foreign voyages at the public expense... These and many other wrongdoings were forgiven to communist Sergei Levchenko, ‘Red Governor’ of the Irkutsk Region. But now the entire region is catching breath – finally, a hope emerged that the Governor is going to pay for his deeds. A massive attack has been launched against Levchenko on all fronts. Is it directed from Moscow? Or maybe, other contenders for the Governor’s chair are intriguing against him?
Sergei Levchenko, Governor of the Irkutsk Region, is finally facing criminal prosecution. After a long period of inaction, the criminal case instituted for the murder of a hibernated bear has been transferred to Moscow. According to The CrimeRussia source in local law enforcement structures, the Prosecutor General’s Office has requested the file on June 21, 2019. Apparently, the case will be handled by Viktor Grin’, a deputy of Yuri Chaika, or directly by the Prosecutor General.
Governor Levchenko has mercilessly shot a helpless animal back in 2017. A video showing all details of the cold-blood slaughter went public in September 2018. A criminal case was instituted under part 2 of Article 258 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (illegal hunt) in December 2018 – although not against Levchenko but against some “unidentified persons”. No information about the investigation progress was published since then. Residents of the region expected the operatives to identify the regional head with a rifle clearly visible on the footage and prosecute him. However, after several months of silence, the hope started waning.
Instead of being called to account for killing a hibernated bear, giving a rifle to a little grandson, and teaching the child how to kill a caged boar, Levchenko continued ruling his ‘domain’. In the last six months, the ‘Red Governor’ has done plenty of ‘good deeds’ without any consequences. But two months ago, changes started happening in the region.
First, the patience of Deputies of the Angarsk Municipal Duma has run out. The last straw was the disruption of the elevator replacement program implemented in apartment buildings. The people’s choices submitted a petition to the Russian President asking to remove Governor Levchenko from office “for corruption, betrayal of interests of people living in the Irkutsk region, discrediting the governmental authorities, and criminal inaction threatening lives and health of hundreds of Angarsk residents”.
The Regional Fund for Capital Renovations has awarded the governmental contract to replace and repair the elevators worth 558 million rubles ($8.8 million) to Zvezda (Star) company. According to the contract terms, Zvezda was supposed to replace 103 unsafe elevators – one-fifth of their total number in Angarsk – within five months. However, by the time of the work completion deadline, the contractor has replaced only one elevator. Surprisingly, but the customer had neither taken efforts to terminate the contract nor included the company in the supplier blacklist. Zvezda Limited Liability Company continues receiving profitable contracts from the Regional Fund for Capital Renovations, including capital repairs of elevators in Ust-Ilimsk. This was so outrageous that the Deputies of the Ust-Ilimsk Municipal Duma have held an extraordinary session to decide how to minimize damages from the company ‘patronized' by the Governor.
Session of the Ust-Ilimsk Municipal Duma
In their petition, the Angrarsk Deputies notified the Russian President that Zvezda is affiliated with the close circle of Levchenko: “According to the Consolidated State Registry of Legal Entities, the founder of Zvezda Limited Liability Company is A.A. Yadrishnikov, a member of the Election Commission of the Irkutsk Region from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and Head of the Legal Department of Stal’konstruktsiya Closed Joint Stock Company belonging to the family of the S.G. Levchenko, Governor of the Irkutsk Region. V. Obozov, a deputy of A.A. Yadrishnikov in Zvezda Limited Liability Company, is an aide to Andrei Levchenko, Deputy of the Legislative Assembly of the Irkutsk Region and son of the Governor of the Irkutsk Region and Head of the CPRF Caucus in the Legislative Assembly of the Irkutsk Region”. Authors of the petition claim that “S.G. Levchenko and his family put the interests of Zvezda Limited Liability Company above the interests of Angarsk residents. The actions of the Governor and his subordinates in relation to Zvezda Limited Liability Company are driven by corruption”.
The Angrarsk Deputies haven’t received an answer to their petition. Therefore, in mid-June, town dwellers started collecting signatures under a letter to Vladimir Putin asking for the same thing: turn attention to corruption elements in the actions of Levchenko and remove the Irkutsk Governor from office.
The previous petition calling for the termination of Levchenko posted on Change.org portal after the slaughter of the hibernated bear has gathered over 100 thousand signatures. It had no real effect – but Irkutsk people still hope that their opinion would ultimately be heard. After all, they have scored one victory – stopped the construction of a Chinese bottling plant for Lake Baikal water. Levchenko had personally ordered to include the bottling plant belonging 99% to Chinese businessmen in the list of top-priority regional projects. However, mass protests have attracted the attention of the West-Siberian Environmental Prosecutor’s Office. The watchdog authority addressed the court, and on March 27, the Kirovsky District Court of Irkutsk has declared the issuance of the plant construction permit illegal.
Irkutsk residents suppose that the Russian President is unaware that the Irkutsk region has turned into a ‘protest territory’ eager to get rid of its cruel Governor. On May 22, Igor Pikhanov, a journalist of Vesti Irkutsk (Irkutsk News) portal, decided to rectify the situation and explained to Vladimir Putin why the general public opposes Levchenko during Truth and Justice Media Forum. The journalist described in detail the state of a collapsing children’s home for 90 orphans built recently in Taishet at the budget expense: leaking roof, cracking walls, falling down heating radiators, ungluing floor covering, etc. The President has heard the journalist out and responded as follows: “This is an individual incident, it must be dealt with specifically, with all materials required for the probe”.
The cruel Governor
Then, contrary to the tradition not to discuss the same region twice at such high-level forums, Zakhar Prilepin asked to show the video about barbaric forest felling in Tukolon nature refuge. Yana Popova, a journalist of Aktis TV Company, picked up the theme and told the President about the “night of closed windows” in Irkutsk – the city was engulfed in smoke from wildfires running through hundreds of hectares of forest. She mentioned that Levchenko had promised to deal with the fires and allocated millions of rubles from the budget for that purpose – implying that the Governor had tried to use the fires to conceal thefts of timber and money. The President’s reaction was muted again: “It is necessary to sort out the things first and then name the guilty parties. This is not right. Neither the Governor nor municipalities can be declared guilty yet”.
Still, the attacks against Levchenko on the forum have brought some result. Despite his muted reaction to the presented facts, the President jokingly asked: "Your Governor is a hunter, right?", thus, making it clear that the Kremlin is aware of the high-profile ‘bear story'. Then Putin gave an instruction to "put things to order in the forestry sphere". In Russia, this is a clear signal to attack for all law enforcement and watchdog structures.
Sergei Sheverda, Minister of the Forest Complex of the Irkutsk Region
The consequences were not long in coming. The scandal around Tukolon nature refuge has escalated to a new level. In early June, operatives of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation arrested Sergei Sheverda, Minister of the Forest Complex of the Irkutsk Region, in Moscow and charged him with “illegal scheduling, authorizing, and conducting of clear sanitary cuttings” in Tukolon State Nature Regional Refuge located in the Kazachinsko-Leninsky district, Angara River region. A criminal case has been instituted against the minister under paragraph “c” of part 3 of Article 286 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (exceeding official powers with the infliction of grave consequences).
The reaction of Levchenko to the arrest of his subordinate suspected of corruption was swift and sharp. The ‘Red Governor’, known for his combative spirit, launched a counterattack. He has officially expressed “deep concerns” in relation to the arrest of the minister and refused to remove him from office because “Sheverda is an efficient administrator”. An announcement was published on the web site of the Government of the Irkutsk Region stating that all felling operations in the nature refuge had been conducted legitimately and subject to all required approvals. On June 25, Levchenko has personally submitted an inquiry to Tatiana Moskal’kova, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Russian Federation, and Viktor Ignat’ev, her colleague in the Irkutsk region, asking to take the case against Sheverda under their personal control. The Governor insists that the criminal case against the minister was instituted illegally, while “the charges laid against him are not consistent with the real circumstances”. Furthermore, Levchenko threatens to find the person responsible for the situation: “I am doing my best to sort out the facts. The timber was sold after the sanitary cuttings – this is absolutely legal and proves nothing. I can see that non-performance of sanitary cuttings inflicts more damage to the state than the sum mentioned in the criminal case. We will find out who is opposing these cuttings”.
To gain the support of Deputies of the Legislative Assembly of the Irkutsk Region, Levchenko suggested them to make a joint trip to Tukolon and see how the nature reserve is suffering from the non-performance of sanitary cuttings. According to him, even if the felled trees were sold to China, “this does not mean that the forest was not infested by pests”. The Governor refuses to terminate Sheverda even after the lodging of new charges against him. The Prosecutor’s Office of the Irkutsk Region has carried out a probe and found out that the minister had violated the anti-corruption legislation by submitting “knowingly incomplete and false information about his revenues, assets, and property liabilities”. The watchdog authority had requested the Governor to fire Sheverda “for loss of trust” – but Levchenko refused claiming that there are no reasons for the termination. On June 19, the Prosecutor’s Office has filed a lawsuit with the Kirovsky District Court of Irkutsk to dismiss the minister.
Perhaps, Levchenko is afraid that Sheverda may share with the investigators plenty of ‘sensitive’ information? Or maybe, the Governor is determined to protect a member of his team by all means in order to demonstrate his strength and courage? In fact, Levchenko was never concerned about the morality of his associates. For instance, it became known in March that his closest aide Dmitry Chernyshov, a good friend of the Governor’s family, has built a luxury villa in Rimini, Italy, – The CrimeRussia wrote about this earlier. Anti-corruption activists started ringing alarm bells: the foreign real estate of Chernyshov is estimated at 26 million rubles ($412 thousand) – while the total earnings of Chernyshov and his wife for the last three years do not exceed 12 million rubles ($190.1 thousand).
Italian villa of Dmitry Chernyshov
The reaction of Levchenko to the scandal was pretty interesting. He dismissed all allegations as slander and ordered to file lawsuits against media outlets publishing results of this journalistic investigation. Then the Governor has officially stated that a probe was carried out and no villas belonging to Chernyshov were found in Italy.
Still, one person from the team led by Levchenko has already been ‘neutralized’. On June 18, the Oktyabr’sky District Court of Irkutsk has satisfied the claim filed by the Prosecutor’s Office and removed Evgeny Lipatov, Deputy Head of the Ministry of Construction and Road Industry of the Irkutsk Region, from office. Lipatov had violated the anti-corruption legislation, illegally combined the civil service with Deputy’s duties, run business activities, and provided false and incomplete information about his revenues. The Prosecutor’s Office of the Irkutsk Region had requested the Governor to fire Lipatov “for loss of trust” – but the deputy minister was just warned about incomplete aptitude to the position held. Ultimately, the watchdog authority had to apply to the court to terminate Lipatov.
Concurrently, the Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) of Russia has launched an attack on Levchenko. On June 25, the FAS announced that he ignores the antimonopoly legislation. Instead of holding a tender for the construction of an international airport in Irkutsk, the Governor extended preferences to a private company. According to Andrei Tenishev, Head of the Anti-Cartel Department of the FAS, the anti-corruption agency had issued two warnings to the Government of the Irkutsk Region and personally to the Governor – but did not receive an answer. Therefore, the FAS concluded that Levchenko and the Government of the Irkutsk Region have violated Article 16 of the Law On Protection of Competition (agreements of authorities restricting competition).
On June 25, the Chamber of Control and Accounts of the Irkutsk Region joined the attack. It calculated the cost of foreign voyages made by Levchenko at the public expense (The CrimeRussia wrote about this earlier). The resultant sum turned out to be pretty high – 65 million rubles ($1 million). Concurrently, financial violations have been identified – the auditors failed to find any reasons behind some trips of the Governor. For instance, he had visited Cuba with an exhibition – but there are no Cuban investors in the Irkutsk region. According to The CrimeRussia source, the inquest was carried out by the Chamber of Control and Accounts of the Irkutsk Region as per instruction of the Prosecutor General's Office.
Apparently, the signal to attack given by the Russian President was heard. However, some media outlets suppose that all recent assaults on the Governor, including the transfer of the criminal case pertaining to the bear slaughter to the Prosecutor General’s Office, are elements of the ongoing struggle for power in the region.
The large-scale campaign against Levchenko was initiated by Irkutsk Mayor Dmitry Berdnikov having a strong lobby in the Prosecutor General’s Office. His mother, Albina Kovaleva, was the Prosecutor of Irkutsk; she knows Yuri Chaika since Soviet times and currently acts as his advisor. The Kremlin is looking for a person to replace Levchenko – and Berdnikov was among the interviewed candidates. Therefore, the Mayor decided to mobilize all his resources to neutralize Levchenko and clear the way for himself. The current Governor may be prosecuted for many of his deeds, including the slaughter of a hibernated bear, ‘patronage’ of Zvezda, foreign trips at the budget expense, etc. The main point in this situation is a command ‘from above’...