Earlier this week, the FSB searched the residence of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-time ally, the head of Russia’s Federal Customs Service. The raid, which was carefully videotaped, found hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.
The Interior Security Department (USB) of the FSB—regular readers should be familiar with this department from our coverage of its recent fights with the FSB’s Economic Security Service (SEB)—broke into Andrey’s Belianinov’s house and found shoe-boxes overflowing with cash: 9.5 million rubles, $390,000 and 350,000 euro were recovered. Photos taken at the scene show Belianinov taking the boxes down off the shelves himself. A photo of the cash laid out on the table is all over the internet now.
After the searches, Belianinov was interrogated at the Investigative Committee headquarters, but was not arrested: no charges were pressed, and no travel restrictions were imposed. Belianinov, however, was designated a witness to the crime. (In post-Soviet systems, being “designated a witness” is an official legal status. It means the person can be summoned for further interrogation at any time, with legal penalties for failing to appear.)
The house was officially searched in connection with a criminal case concerning alcohol smuggling and customs fraud. A billionaire from St. Petersburg, Dmitry Mikhalchenko, was also implicated in the same case, and was arrested in Moscow in April. Mikhalchenko’s arrest led to the fall of Evgeny Murov, the long-time head of the Federal Protection Service (FSO)—the Russian President’s bodyguards.
The unwritten rule of law in today’s Russia implies that no high-ranking officials can be searched or prosecuted by law enforcement without Vladimir Putin’s personal sanction. When it does happen, it suggests two things. One, Putin let it happen. And two, since Putin in general doesn’t like to give up his friends, a person very close to the President probably had to persuade him to do so.
Belianinov served in the First Chief Directorate of the KGB (foreign intelligence), and was deployed to the Embassy in East Germany in the late 1980s, where, according to several media reports, he met and got along with Vladimir Putin. In the 1990s he worked in business and banking, and in 2000 he was appointed as the head of state corporation Rosoboronexport—an arms exporter. Between 2004 to 2006, Belianinov headed the Federal Service for Defense Contracts, and in 2006 he was appointed to the Federal Customs Service.
The USB was responsible for the recent arrest of Nikita Belykh, the governor of Kirov Oblast, as well as for the arrests of two other governors several month prior. Two years ago, the USB, led by its so-called “Gestapo”—the mysterious and secretive 6th Service—brought down the Economical Security and Anticorruption Department of the Interior Ministry, leading to one General’s untimely death and another’s imprisonment. The same USB got Vladimir Putin to appoint its own head, Sergey Korolev, to lead the SEB. (Alert readers will remember the story: the SEB’s former leader, Yury Yakovlev, was fired after his subordinates were implicated in a bribery scheme, following an internal investigation by the USB. The investigation was related to the above-mentioned criminal case against Mikhalchenko, and it revealed that several officials from Directorate K, the SEB’s department tasked with overseeing banks and other financial institutions, were involved. The head of Directorate K, General Viktor Voronin, a subordinate of Yakovlev and a silovik who has always been considered a heavyweight, resigned as well.) The SEB, now headed by Korolev, was responsible for striking a massive blow against the Investigative Committee, and its head Aleksandr Bastrykin, last week.
As we have reported before, the 6th Service in particular, and increasingly the entire USB, is being unofficially overseen by General Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s long-time head of security who was recently appointed to lead the newly-formed, powerful National Guard. The more the USB and (the newly colonized) SEB act, the more it seems likely that a powerful mastermind stands behind them both—someone with direct access to Vladimir Putin, someone who is unconditionally trusted by Russia’s President, and who has military forces below him.
Why the head of the Federal Customs Service in particular was singled out to be the next victim remains unclear. It might have been personal revenge for past affairs, or it might be connected to some SEB activities (officially, the SEB oversees the financial and banking sectors in Russia; unofficially, it shakes down all the players it oversees). Whatever the specifics, a larger picture emerges of how the siloviki are repartitioning influence in Putin’s Russia. A new powerful player always means new rules of the game.
As for Andrey Belianinov, some media reported yesterday he had resigned from his post. The head of the Customs Service’s legal department appeared to be in denial, and called this nonsense: “It can’t be true, because it can never be true.”
UPDATE: It looks like Belianinov has been officially fired.