Russian ex-defense minister's confidant charged

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 23, 2012 16:30 hrs

A close associate of a former Russian defense minister was placed under house arrest Friday on charges of defrauding the state of millions of dollars.

Yevgeniya Vasilyeva, the 33-year old former head of the Defense Ministry's property department, is accused of stealing more than 360 million rubles (over $11 million) through a scheme that involved the sale of the military's prized land plots and real estate, Russia's top investigative agency said. Vasilyeva faces up to six years in prison if convicted.

Vasilyeva has been forbidden to use the Internet and communicate with anyone except her lawyers while under house arrest. She pleaded not guilty to the charges and asked to be released on 15 million rubles ($480,000) bail, a request dismissed by Moscow's Khamovnichesky district court. Her lawyer said she would appeal the ruling.

President Vladimir Putin has pointed at the military corruption probe as a reason for firing Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov earlier this month, but some Russian media pointed at the minister's alleged romantic relationship with blonde-haired Vasilyeva as a key factor behind his downfall.

They said that Serdyukov angered his powerful father-in-law, Viktor Zubkov, a one-time prime minister and current chairman of the state-controlled Gazprom natural gas company.

The military corruption probe began abruptly last month with a pre-dawn search of Vasilyeva's apartment in a prestigious building where Serdyukov also lived. Russian news reports claimed that Serdyukov himself opened the door to investigators who knocked on Vasilyeva's door.

Officials confiscated jewelry items, paintings and other precious objects worth millions of dollars from Vasilyeva, and state television stations have suggested the probe is a sign of a re-energized campaign against official corruption. Opinion polls showed strong public support for the ouster of Serdyukov, whose painful military reform has made him unpopular in the ranks.

Some observers were skeptical, saying that Serdyukov's ouster was likely rooted in an intensifying behind-the-scenes battle for the distribution of 20 trillion rubles ($635 billion) that the Kremlin plans to spend on buying new weapons through 2020. They claimed that Serdyukov had angered Kremlin-connected leaders of military industries by demanding better quality and lower prices and refusing to sign new weapons contracts for months.

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