Shady past dogs Russian mayor Corruption, killings, mini-marts, gasoline are parts of probe

October 05, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LENINSK-KUZNETSKY, Russia -- War is raging across Russia as mafiosi and mayors alike fight to the death over post-Communist spoils. Here, in a hardscrabble mining town in the middle of Siberia's dying coal fields, most people agree on the best way to stay alive and out of jail: Be insignificant. Aspire to nothing.

Gennady Konyakhin, the mayor of Leninsk-Kuznetsky, ignored this rule. And it looks as if he's about to pay for it.

A convicted small-time criminal, Konyakhin is being investigated for big-time crimes: suspicion of ordering three contract killings, of illegally buying the city's main market -- which he named after himself -- and of ordering city agencies to buy gasoline from his stations and award contracts to his construction company.

Today, he can't risk stepping outside without a bodyguard in his city of 140,000 people. But neither can anyone else with money. A mine director was murdered this year; last year the deputy director of the mining conglomerate was shot down; so was the deputy chief of the tax police, along with numerous businessmen. The city had 103 murders in 1995, 72 in 1996 and 43 so far this year.

"We're not Chicago or New York," Col. Sergei Yuriyev, head of police criminal investigations here, says soothingly. "Our town is remarkable only for being unremarkable. The 1990s in Russia are the same as the 1930s in the United States."

So Konyakhin says he was surprised when the Kremlin reached out from 2,000 miles away in Moscow just over a week ago and pointed a finger at him. President Boris N. Yeltsin was initiating a vigorous national offensive against widespread corruption, and he said he was beginning with Gennady Konyakhin.

"You could as easily call me a cosmonaut as a killer," Konyakhin said in an interview last week in his office, which is decorated in chrome, black lacquer and elegant gray. Even his bodyguard is color-coordinated, sitting thick-necked at the door, holding a black walkie-talkie and wearing a black jeans jacket.

"If I was such a bad person, how could I become mayor?"

No worse than others

The voters say he's no worse than anyone else in public office. They say previous corrupt officials are stirring things up because they have been pushed aside.

"Konyakhin fired the people he used to bribe," says Maria Alexyeeva, a 50-year-old retired compositor waiting for a bus on the shabby main street, desolate except for the handsome buildings the mayor owns. "That's why they're so angry now."

Russians have long accepted the idea that the typical politician seeks office to obtain a license to steal. Holding office also offers a refuge from prosecution. Prosecutors, accustomed to a tradition where those in power were untouchable, shy away from going after officeholders. Indeed, under Russian law, members of the State Duma are immune from prosecution.

"Politics is done by people who need money, who need an apartment," Iosif Kobzon said after he won a seat in the Duma last month. "I have all that. I need nothing from the Duma. I need to receive status."

Kobzon, a singer Russians compare to Frank Sinatra because of his voice and demeanor, won his seat from a tiny district on the Mongolian border, where he had never set foot. He ran for office because he was smarting from the humiliation of once being denied a visa by U.S. authorities who suspected he had mafia ties. He expects better treatment as a Duma deputy.

Though he has periodically announced anti-corruption campaigns that then are never pursued, Yeltsin said in a recent radio address that prosecutors have begun to act. More than 2,500 government officials across the country are under investigation for corruption, and eight embezzlement cases have been brought against generals and admirals, he said.

"The criminalization of power is a serious danger," Yeltsin said. "They don't care what actual post they take up -- deputy, head of a regional administration or mayor. The main thing is to be closer to the feeding-trough."

Most Russians remain cynical. They find it amusing that Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin declares his annual income as $8,000, when they know he controlled the rich Russian gas industry before entering government.

Investigation is extended

President Yeltsin sent a 17-member team to Leninsk-Kuznetsky to investigate the mayor and corruption in the region. The first finding: Konyakhin's election was legal. Last week, the commission decided to extend its investigation another week.

Konyakhin, 38, was elected mayor in April after a campaign in which he assured voters he was so rich he didn't have to steal. He made no effort to hide his criminal past.

"People know I was tried," he said. "They voted for me anyway. For that I thank them."

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