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Putin fires embattled defense minister

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times –

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin fired his defense minister Tuesday amid a criminal investigation into suspected fraud and embezzlement involving military assets.

Putin announced his decision to dismiss Anatoly Serdyukov two weeks after the federal Investigative Committee announced it was probing the possible “fraudulent sale of real estate, land plots and stocks” belonging to the military. The investigation apparently already showed the equivalent of more than $100 million in losses to the government, the committee said.

The case involves Oboronservice, a company affiliated with the country’s defense ministry, and Yevgeniya Vasilyeva, a close associate of Serdyukov’s who once headed the ministry’s property department. Investigators say military assets, including real estate, were sold at significantly reduced prices to “business structures affiliated with Oboronservice” and that in addition “many real estate objects were bought with money stolen from the same” company.

Putin said Serdyukov would be replaced by Sergei Shoigu, who was appointed Moscow regional governor six months ago after serving 20 years as the country’s emergency situations minister.

“You know about the recent circumstances unfortunately surrounding the defense minister,” Putin said in televised remarks. “In order to create the necessary conditions for an objective investigation … I have decided to dismiss … Serdyukov and appoint another person to this job.”

Serdyukov was appointed by Putin in 2007 to oversee military reforms. Those included the dismissal of several hundred generals and 200,000 officers and the securing of billions of dollars from the state budget to restructure the armed forces.

Putin, who appeared on television with Shoigu, commended the reforms overseen by Serdyukov and expressed hope that the new minister “can continue everything positive accomplished in recent years and … carry out the grand plans for modifying the army’s weaponry.”

Analysts varied in their views of whether Serdyukov effectively reformed the military. Some said Serdyukov, a former furniture salesman and tax collector, faced an uphill battle from the day he was appointed defense minister because many experts alleged that he got his job by being the son-in-law of Viktor Zubkov, who was then prime minister in Putin’s government and now is chairman of Gazprom, the giant state-controlled natural gas monopoly.

“He has successfully overseen a massive restructuring of the armed forces management, making a brigade as the main combat unit and creating a united strategic command controlling the land, air and sea forces,” said Igor Korotchenko, head of the defense ministry’s Supervision Council and editor in chief of the National Defense monthly journal.

“He radically increased by 2 1/2 to 3 times the servicemen’s wages and he secured 20 trillion rubles (about $600 billion) in state funds to qualitatively upgrade the army’s weaponry and equipment,” Korotchenko said in an interview.

Retired Col. Viktor Baranets, a former adviser to the chief of general staff and currently defense analyst with the popular daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, said Serdyukov’s reforms may have been well intentioned but they included numerous mistakes.

“Serdyukov bought unpiloted planes from Israel but they turned to be quite useless in our harsh climate, especially in winter,” Baranets said in an interview. “He ordered new uniforms for the army, which looked good but lacked a proper lining and sent whole companies of soldiers to hospitals with pneumonia.”

Baranets also said Serdyukov scrapped too many military training establishments and that his relationship with Vasiliyeva and the exposure of her enormous wealth and lavish apartment didn’t play well with the thousands of officers who wait for years to get apartments for their families.

Investigators who searched Vasiliyeva’s home last week reportedly found thousands of dollars worth of precious antiques, paintings and jewlery. Russian media reports allege that she was romantically involved with Serdyukov.

Retired Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin, a former senior defense ministry official and currently a senior researcher of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, denounced the reforms carried out by Serdyukov “with an axe.” Shoigu should “stop the further destruction of the Russian military school and defense research institutes” and dismiss the many unqualified workers Serdyukov hired to top defense ministry jobs, Dvorkin said.

“Shoigu will not make things worse,” Dvorkin said, “because they simply can’t be worse.”

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