Russia goes on trial in immigration case Judge to determine if entrepreneur is swindler or victim

December 24, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON, Va. -- In this penthouse courtroom above a gourmet deli and a Metro stop, the name on the case is that of Alexandre Konanykhine, a post-Soviet business whiz kid U.S. immigration authorities want to deport.

But, in the battle of the experts weighing in on the immigration judge's excruciating dilemma, Russia itself is on trial.

From a seemingly routine accusation of a false statement on a visa application more than two years ago, the Konanykhine case has blown up into a major issue in law-enforcement relations between Russia and the United States. It has spawned a Justice Department investigation of possible misconduct by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

And now Konanykhine's request for political asylum has posed a stark question to the court:

Is the United States simply helping the Russians bring to justice a swindler who fleeced his own bank of $8 million?

Or, as Konanykhine claims, is the United States unwittingly delivering to corrupt Russian authorities an honest entrepreneur whose businesses were muscled away from him by crooked former KGB officers in league with organized crime?

This month, from a parade of specialists on Russia, there was talk of hit men and torture, of billions drained from the Russian economy into bank accounts from Cyprus to Antigua. Witnesses included a former Soviet Communist Party disinformation specialist and an FBI expert on Russian organized crime.

At one hearing in the case, immigration Judge John M. Bryant suggested that only by penetrating the mystery of Russia, sometime adversary and sometime ally of the United States, could the court do justice in the Konanykhine case.

"Did a foreign government mislead you?" Bryant asked the lawyers for the INS. "Was the United States duped?"

No, INS attorneys argue. Seven years after the end of Communist rule, after elections and legal reforms, the official INS position is that the United States should treat criminal charges from Russia as they would charges from, say, France or Japan.

The lawyer for Konanykhine and his wife, Elena Gratcheva, called that position naive. Given the bottom-to-top corruption and murderous business climate in the new Russia, a case such as the one against Konanykhine might be as easily concocted for political reasons as in the darkest Soviet days, said attorney Michael Maggio.

While the United States has no extradition treaty with Russia, a deportation order could mean the couple would be forced to return to Russia if no other country agreed to take them. Bryant will not issue his decision before February, and either side could appeal.

Among the witnesses, Louise I. Shelley, who studies Russian organized crime at American University, offered the strongest support for the INS position. She suggested that the theft charges against Konanykhine appear legitimate and that he might get a fair trial in Moscow.

But some experts for the INS said the logic of the Russian case against Konanykhine is imperfect. They acknowledged that his conduct after fleeing Russia in late 1992 -- writing letters to newspapers and to Russian officials demanding an investigation the bank he allegedly had looted -- was not exactly typical of a thief on the lam.

The INS experts did not dispute that the Russian Exchange Bank, founded by Konanykhine in 1991, collapsed in 1995 under the management of the ex-officers of the former Soviet intelligence agency and others who he says stole the bank from him, with a half-billion dollars of depositors' money evaporating in the process.

And they acknowledged that Russian justice reform is, to put it gently, incomplete.

"He's a whistle-blower," said Peter H. Solomon, an expert on the Russian legal system at the University of Toronto who was hired by the INS. "There's an element of reaction and revenge in this case."

Tradition of planned killings

Some experts said Konanykhine might not survive to face trial in Russia. Contract killings on the street are commonplace, and arranged murders by cellmates are a Russian tradition, they said.

"I would not recommend to an insurance company that they should insure his life," said Alec Sarkisian, a Soviet disinformation specialist, who defected in 1986 and advises the U.S. government on Russian affairs.

Konanykhine's life is a mirror of the tumultuous last 10 years in the history of Russia.

A brilliant student at Moscow's most prestigious physics institute, he was thrown out for turning a student construction brigade into a profit-making business. Then, as former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev began his reforms, he found the business legalized.

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