Russia opens criminal case against ex-defence minister
Russian investigators on Thursday brought criminal charges against former defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who was fired a year ago in a major corruption scandal.
The once influential official was charged with negligence for using servicemen to refurbish a private holiday residence on an island in Russia's southern Astrakhan region and to build a road to it, said the Investigative Committee, which probes major criminal cases.
Serdyukov had ordered the works to "allegedly create a recreation facility for the defence ministry," said the committee's spokesman Vladimir Markin.
But "the road that was built could be used only by owners and visitors" of the Zhitnoye residence, he said in a statement, adding that the works cost 56 million rubles ($1.6 million) in public funds.
The holiday residence belonged at the time to Serdyukov's son-in-law.
The residence's "landscaping works were conducted by draftees from an aviation unit while the road was built by a squadron of railroad troops," Markin said.
"Instead of undergoing service and military studies, some soldiers were involved in planting poplars... while others were laying a road instead of railway tracks."
The former defence minister faces up to three months in prison if convicted of the charge.
Investigators have for the past year probed a multi-million-dollar property scam at a defence ministry holding company and have charged Serdyukov's close associate, Yevgenia Vasilyeva, with fraud.
But the former minister himself had until Thursday appeared untouchable and many had expected him to be spared criminal charges due to his close ties to the Kremlin.
Serdyukov is married to the daughter of former prime minister and Putin ally Viktor Zubkov.
He was fired in November 2012, shortly after investigators seeking to question Vasilyeva as part of the ministry corruption probe were met at her front door by the then minister dressed in a bathrobe.
At the time of his sacking, Serdyukov had been implementing an unpopular but government-backed military reform and appeared to have enjoyed Kremlin's unequivocal support.
Putin is widely known for his aversion to public scandals so Serdyukov's high-profile dismissal stunned Russians and was seen as a power struggle among the elites.
While many observers say that Serdyukov may avoid jail time, others like analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who studies the Russian elite, say the move to charge him is unprecedented.
"This is an official of the highest level, like the Politbyuro in the Soviet Union," Kryshtanovskaya told AFP.
A former furniture salesman who rose to head the Russian tax authority, Serdyukov became the first civilian to serve as post-Soviet Russia's defence minister when he was appointed in 2007.
His lack of military credentials made powerful enemies within the defence ministry as he tried to push through the controversial military overhaul.
Following his sacking, President Vladimir Putin said that Serdyukov was free to work at any company that would hire him.
"It's not 1937 here," quipped Putin, referring to the peak year of Stalin-era purges.
© 2013 AFP