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Former Russian defense minister charged in corruption case

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MOSCOW -- Former  Russian defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov was charged with negligence Friday in a case involving the construction of a road to a building that has been identified as the lavish dacha of his brother-in-law.

Serdyukov, 51, a former furniture salesman in St. Petersburg, was the first first civilian defense minister of Russia, appointed to the position by President Vladimir Putin in 2007 to undertake sweeping reforms of the nation's armed forces. He is now the first current or former member of Putin's government to be charged with a crime, officials said.

Serdykov's actions resulted in losses of $1.75 million to the state, according to Vladimir Markin, Russia's Investigative Committee spokesman who also implied that in the course of the ongoing investigation, more serious charges could still be pressed.

“Serdyukov gave an oral order to his subordinates to build at the defense ministry's expense a highway from the village of Krasa in the [southern] Astrakhan region to the island of Shkolny [in the Volga River mouth] to a [private] facility,” Markin said Friday in televised remarks. “Besides the former minister ordered landscape work to be done at the facility.”

The facility was a lavish dacha that belonged to Serdyukov's brother-in-law, said retired Col. Viktor Baranets, former general staff advisor and now defense columnist with the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda.

“A whole railway troops battalion or two were used to build the road to that dacha,”  Baranets said in an interview with The Times. “Hundreds of spruce and fir trees and thousands of lawn rolls were flown there from Moscow as hundreds of ordinary conscript soldiers were used as slave labor to plant all that. A whole defense ministry plane full of Spanish-made furniture was flown from Spain to equip that dacha.”

During his reign as defense minister, Serdyukov reportedly fired several hundred generals and more than 200,000 officers while securing billions of dollars to restructure the forces.

He was fired in November 2012 in the midst of a multimillion-dollar fraud scandal involving his alleged mistress, Yevgeniya Vasilyeva. Vasilyeva, the former head of the defense ministry's property department, is under house arrest in her lavish downtown Moscow apartment. 

In November, investigators seized precious antiques and paintings, stacks of money and pounds of gold and jewelry from the apartment, which formerly belonged to the defense ministry.

Serdyukov, who was briefly questioned Friday, did not plead guilty and refused to testify.

The Kremlin, which recently called for an all-out fight against corruption, appears to still be having  a difficult time deciding what to do with Serdyukov, said Kirill Kabanov, head of the Anti-Corruption Committee, a Moscow think tank studying corruption.

“It is up to the Kremlin to decide whether Serdyukov will be charged with abuse of power and may effectively end up in prison, or he will remain charged with negligence and get off with a fine in the end,” Kabanov said in an interview with The Times. “In any case the Kremlin doesn't look good.”

Kabanov said it is also likely that Serdyukov's case may be halted by a sweeping amnesty measure from the Kremlin expected to be discussed by parliament next week.

Civil society and rights activists have been looking forward to the amnesty, expecting it to free such prisoners as former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, members of the Pussy Riot punk rock band and other Putin opponents.

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sergei.loiko@latimes.com

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