Three prominent Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) officials, two of them cousins of KBR head Arsen Kanokov, were formally charged by a Moscow court
last week with fraud in connection with the sale, allegedly at a knockdown price, of the philharmonia building in Nalchik.
But commentators are speculating that what initially appeared to be a run-of-the-mill corruption scandal may be either part of a campaign by a rival political grouping to oust Kanokov, or the start of a broader anticorruption campaign by new Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev.
The three men under arrest are KBR presidential-administration head Vladimir Zhamborov; his brother Ruslan, a former deputy minister for the management of state property and land; and the head of that ministry, Khabdulsalam Didigov.
The Zhamborovs are Kanokov's cousins. They are accused of having engineered the sale of the dilapidated philharmonia building to Madina Khatsukova, a cousin of Kanokov's wife, for 1.125 million rubles ($34,916), far below the market price, which has been variously estimated at 20 million and 33 million rubles.
Khatsukova is a well known designer and producer of Kabardian national costumes who reportedly sought to acquire the philharmonia building
as a museum and showroom. She is also a cousin of Kanokov's wife, whose help she reportedly solicited to acquire the building.
The circumstances of the arrests suggest they were undertaken on orders from the federal, not the republican level, on the basis of recordings of telephone conversations
between the four protagonists. Up to 100 Interior Ministry personnel, some of them armed, were flown secretly from Moscow to Mozdok in North Ossetia and then transported in buses to Nalchik, where early on June 7 they searched offices in the presidential administration (including Kanokov's), apprehended the three officials and Khatsukova and took them to Moscow to be questioned and formally charged.
Khatsukova reportedly managed to persuade investigators that she was unaware of the imputed attempt by the three officials to defraud the state. She claimed that the official she liaised with (it is not clear which of the three) assured her the deal was legal, and she saw no reason to disbelieve
The Zhamborov brothers and Didigov have been remanded in custody despite protests by their lawyers that they were not formally charged within the maximum 48 hours after their apprehension. Their respective lawyers have appealed that decision
. Ruslan Zhamborov and Didigov have pleaded not guilty.
Vladimir Zhamborov has reportedly identified as behind the case brought against him Colonel General Yury Kokov
, who since 2008 has headed the Russian Interior Ministry's top antiextremism body. Kokov is believed to be a relative of Kanokov's predecessor as KBR president, Valery Kokov, and to bear a grudge against Kanokov for failing to abide by an unwritten agreement not to strip members
of the late president's team of the economic resources they controlled.
Some observers believe Yury Kokov hopes to oust and succeed Kanokov and was behind the protests and unrest two years ago that Kanokov construed as an attempt to discredit him
and thus thwart his nomination for a second presidential term.
Other commentators, including Ibragim Yaganov, who heads the unofficial Kabardian political organization Adyge Khase, doubt that Yury Kokov has the authority
to launch such a high-profile investigation.
An alternative hypothesis is that the arrests of the three officials are the first move in a sweeping anticorruption campaign launched by new Interior Minister Kolokoltsev to demonstrate that Moscow is serious about cracking down on corruption
in the North Caucasus.( North Caucasus Federal District head Aleksandr Khloponin described the arrests
as "perfectly normal" and evidence that "all are equal before the law.") But in that case the question arises: why select as the opening gambit a case that involves such a paltry (by Russian standards) sum of money?
A third explanation centers on competition for ownership of land. Kanokov built up a vast business empire in Moscow before being named KBR president in 2005. His Sindika holding (of which Vladimir Zhamborov served as general director from 2007 to 2009) has since bought up land in Kabardino-Balkaria. Kanokov recently announced his intention of investing $1 billion in the string of planned luxury North Caucasus tourist resorts in which French, British, and Chinese investors have also expressed an interest. Yaganov believes the arrest of his cousins was intended to serve notice to Kanokov that he is playing outside his league
The general consensus is that, whoever gave the orders for the arrests and for whatever reason, Kanokov's position has been weakened. Whether he will be constrained to part with some of his own commercial interests, and whether Kolokoltsev also plans to target other federation subject heads, remains to be seen.