Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Colonel Zakharchenko

On September 10, Russia became the proud owner of the world’s richest colonel, when anti-corruption chief Dmitry Zakharchenko was arrested in Moscow, after half a tonne of cash was discovered in an apartment that he claimed belonged to his sister.

Colonel Zakharchenko

On September 10, Russia became the proud owner of the world’s richest colonel, when anti-corruption chief Dmitry Zakharchenko was arrested in Moscow, after half a tonne of cash was discovered in an apartment that he claimed belonged to his sister.

Colonel Zakharchenko, and part of his stash

A few days later, a further 300 million euro surfaced in Swiss bank accounts registered to Zakharchenko’s father. “The fight against corruption is more profitable than corruption itself,” former State Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov said of the sums siphoned off by “just one colonel.”

The Runet, unruly mouthpiece of public opinion, was both agog and aghast.

“Colonel Zakharchenko is ready to cover next year’s federal budget deficit, but only if investigators promise not to peek inside his garage.”

When the news broke that 8.5 billion roubles in cash alone had been seized from the apartment of Zakharchenko’s sister, the mayor of Yekaterinburg, and renowned social activist, Yevgeny Roizman, calculated the haul in local terms: “The booty seized from this one middling colonel and anti-corruption warrior amounts to a quarter of Yekaterinburg’s annual budget.”

The media employed more universal metrics, stating that Zakharchenko had secreted away 460 million dollars, enough to buy 23 metric tonnes of gold.

How did the deputy chief of the Department of Economic Security, under the Russian Interior Ministry, amass such a fabulous and undeserved fortune? The accused himself is keeping shtum, but reporters for the online publication Slon have discovered that for many years Zakharchenko helped banks avoid the unwanted attention of various oversight bodies.

Ex-banker German Gorbuntsov, now in hiding in London, recalls the “fantastic efficiency” of the soft-spoken, inconspicuous colonel: “When Zakharchenko arrived, all claims [against the bank] immediately evaporated … I’ve long wondered how a colonel got things done that would have been beyond most generals, but back then I didn’t know Zakharchenko was friends with people close to Russian Railways. That explains a lot.” According to Gorbuntsov, as a man “it paid to be friend with,” the colonel received 150,000 euro a month from structures close to Russian Railways. Moreover, contractors awarded tenders worth hundreds of billions of roubles, invariably remitted 5% of the profits to Zakharchenko for his assistance.

Rumours are also flying that over the years, Colonel Zakharchenko warned (evidently not for selfless motives) various businessmen, criminal leaders and siloviki [ruling elite] colleagues about impending investigations into their affairs. Media reports suggest that it was Zakharchenko who helped Nota-Bank CFO Galina Marchukova evade arrest (it is estimated that 26 billion roubles was embezzled from the credit institution, and Zakharchenko is believed to have received a cut). It is also said that Mikhail Slobodin, the now wanted ex-head of VimpelCom, fled Russia after a warning from Zakharchenko. According to some sources, Zakharchenko gave a similar tip-off to generals from the Investigative Committee arrested in July this year, but hubris on their part meant that the warnings went unheeded.

Colonel Zakharchenko liked to keep his savings under the bed

Other, more exotic theories are also doing the rounds. The pro-government tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda had a somewhat different take on what it all meant: “The dollar bills were sealed in a yellow parcel [indicative of] the factory packaging of one of the US Federal Reserve’s 12 printing presses.” This observation invites some far-fetched conclusions: was Zakharchenko’s hidden stash intended for a Russian Maidan? “This yellow parcel could mean nothing, or it could mean a lot if one recalls the recent coup in Ukraine and the wave of ‘colour revolutions’ across the post-Soviet space. All these ‘rose’ and ‘tulip’ revolutions had the paw prints of one particular transatlantic country all over them, and these supposedly ‘popular uprisings’ demanded vast amounts of financing for all and sundry.”

According to Alexei Shlyapuzhnikov of Transparency International Russia, if Zakharchenko was indeed in possession of “black money,” it came not from the United States, but from sources closer to home: “It appears that the FSB’s economic security service impounded an illegal kitty fund operated by the rival Main Directorate of Economic Security and Anti-Corruption, under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In other words, it has nothing to do with fighting corruption or corrupt individuals, but the latest round in the ongoing confrontation between Russia’s all-powerful secret services, which increasingly resembles a turf war between criminal groups.” It should be noted that Zakharchenko himself long enjoyed the patronage of influential officials inside the FSB, and became vulnerable only after the recent shake-up at Lubyanka.

Journalist Oleg Kashin says the phenomenon of Dmitry Zakharchenko cannot be viewed as a special case because he in fact represents the system: “In today’s Russia, talk of corruption is meaningless. The recent string of high-profile cases proves that corruption and the Russian state in its current form are two sides of one equation. If any political discussion is possible in this regard, it should concern not personalities, but the dismantling of the entire system of corruption.”

But how likely is that? Economic commentator Maxim Blant believes that bribery in Russia can be eradicated only through political competition, otherwise nothing will change: “The infamous ‘power vertical’ and the system of ‘manual control’ are the two main wellheads of corruption. Conversely, corruption is perhaps the key to managing the power vertical.”

As we go to press, it has been reported that Colonel Zakharchenko has been “relieved of his duties.” No mention of the money.

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