Medvedev’s Crackdown on Corruption

The Moscow Times reports:

Lawyer Inna Yermoshkina gave little thought to the two dozen police officers waiting near the entrance of her apartment building when she returned home one evening in May. After all, she thought, she hadn’t done anything wrong. But when the plainclothes officers surrounded Yermoshkina and her husband and a uniformed officer ordered their arrest, she understood that there was no going back. Yermoshkina, 41, was handcuffed and placed in a police car, where she said she was assaulted by officers. Police escorted her husband up to their apartment, where she claims that they confiscated documents she had gathered about relatives of senior city and government official.  The man in uniform said the couple was being investigated for fraud.

“This will teach you not to step on the toes of important people,” Yermoshkina recalled the police officer saying.

Yermoshkina claims that she is being targeted by authorities as retribution for a series of complaints she has filed alleging that nepotism and corruption are involved in the awarding of lucrative notary public licenses.

The government keeps strict control over the number of notaries legally allowed to open offices. And in a country rife with red tape, where notary stamps are required for everything from passports to inheritances to real estate and automobile transactions, licensed notaries public hold a monopoly on processing the nation’s paperwork.

Yermoshkina, who wrote her doctoral thesis on notaries, said Moscow notaries process on average 150,000 documents annually, compared with the 300 documents per year that German notaries register.

One of the cheapest services offered by notaries, document authentication, costs around 200 rubles ($8). Using Yermoshkina’s figure, at least $1.2 million would pass through notaries’ offices if they processed only basic authentications.

Numerous other services cost much more, and lawyers who have tried to obtain notary permits told The Moscow Times that notaries in the capital can make up to $100,000 a month.

“In a bureaucratic country like Russia, people always need a notary to authenticate documents, and profits are huge,” said Sergei, a Moscow lawyer who was denied a notary license by the commission that hands them out.

This is why, the lawyers explained, federal and city officials want their family members to be granted permits and for a cap to remain on the number of notaries allowed to operate.

To become a notary public, a lawyer is required to have a license and have completed a six-month apprenticeship with a notary. This, however, is not enough to allow him to open his own office. For this, a prospective notary is required to obtain a separate permit in a tender organized by a special commission.

The eight-person commission, appointed by the Justice Ministry, includes four members from the Federal Registration Service and four from the Federal Notary Chamber, a nongovernmental organization that functions like a bar association.

Yermoshkina has filed three complaints this year against the commission, which she accused of having illegally assisted relatives of top officials in obtaining Moscow permits while denying them to qualified lawyers.

Yermoshkina and the two other lawyers interviewed for this report said aspiring notaries must either have links with powerful officials or pay hefty bribes to the commission.

Spokespeople for the Federal Notary Chamber, the Federal Registration Service and the Justice Ministry declined to comment for this report.

In one of her complaints, Yermoshkina accused the commission of unfairly awarding permits in 2005 to the relatives of federal and city officials, including Irina Buksman, wife of First Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Buksman, and Alexander Pronin, the son of Moscow City Police chief Vladimir Pronin.

Spokespeople for the Prosecutor General’s Office and Moscow city police declined to comment for this report. Faxed requests went unanswered.

Yermoshkina was passed over in the 2005 tender for notary permits, when the commission was headed by Buksman, who at the time was head of the Federal Registration Service.

While a court has yet to hear Yermoshkina’s complaints — a hearing is scheduled at Moscow’s Simonovsky District Court on Thursday — the fact that Irina Buksman received a notary license from the commission headed by her husband did attract the attention of federal investigators.

The Investigative Committee in June tried to open up a criminal case against Alexander Buksman for purportedly illegally assisting his wife, but Buksman’s boss, Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, stepped in and issued an order forbidding the investigation.

Chaika and Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin have publicly sparred over a number of high-profile cases in a standoff widely believed to be closely connected with a battle of influence between powerful competing clans close to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

A month after the Investigative Committee tried to open the criminal case, Irina Buksman resigned from her notary post. Kommersant reported that she was pressured to leave in order to avoid further scandals concerning how she obtained her notary license.

Lawyers Sergei and Irina, who declined to give their last names because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the average lawyer can secure a notary permit by paying a bribe to the commission ranging from $300,000 to $500,000.

“It is a good investment if you can piece the money together,” Irina said. “In less than one year, you can pay the money back, and after that it’s all profit.”

Several notaries contacted for this report declined to say how much money they earn annually.

In Moscow, a city of more than 10 million people, there are around 700 notary offices, according to City Hall figures, most of which are perpetually packed with clients. In comparison, Rome, with less than 3 million residents, has around 5,000 notary offices.

“This is a piece of cake that our bureaucrats want to keep for themselves,” said Irina, who has been passed over for a notary license in several different tenders. “The tenders are organized only to limit the number of jobs.”

Yermoshkina said she never stood a chance in any of the several tenders she participated in “because there always was someone with the right connections to give the job to.”

“I decided that something needed to be done and filed the lawsuits to stop this situation,” she said. “But after that, my life became hell.”

Yermoshkina spent two months in detention pending the fraud charges, which date back to 1999. She and her husband are suspected of defrauding a woman in a real estate transaction — charges she says are fabricated.

“In our country, top officials are untouchable,” Yermoshkina said. “They’re allowed to do anything.”

While in jail, Yermoshkina said investigators threatened that if she did not withdraw her lawsuits, “very bad things would happen to her.”

“Now it is too late,” she said. “They will hurt my family anyway, even if I give up.”

Her husband is currently being held in the Butyrskaya detention facility in northern Moscow. If charged and convicted, they face up to 10 years in prison.

Yermoshkina said the pressure is only increasing from city police.

Last month, she said, someone identifying himself as a police officer called her and said her husband’s wrists had been slit and his ribs broken while in detention, while another officer told her that there would be “other surprise accusations” against her if she did not withdraw the lawsuits.

The surprise, she said, came last week.

On Sept. 25, Yermoshkina said, the main investigation directorate of the Moscow city police told her that she and her husband now stand accused of heading a criminal organization that assisted their relatives in privatizing apartments.

Yermoshkina accused Pronin, the city police chief, and Buksman, the first deputy prosecutor general, of ordering the criminal case against her.

Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, an advocacy group, said Yermoshkina’s case was emblematic of the rampant corruption in the country.

“Those who fight corruption in our country are discredited and considered enemies, even after what [President Dmitry Medvedev] said,” Kabanov said.

Medvedev has declared the battle with corruption a key priority in his presidency, and in May he created the Anti-Corruption Council to tackle the issue.

Speaking at the first meeting of the council Tuesday, Medvedev called graft “a grave disease that eats away at our economy and corrodes the whole society,” adding that the four bills being sent to the Duma were aimed at rooting out corruption by protecting property rights, strengthening the country’s law enforcement and court systems, and eliminating myriad barriers faced by businesses.

“The president ordered our corrupt bureaucrats to fight against corruption, and [Yermoshkina’s case] is a clear example of how things work,” Kabanov said.

Yermoshkina said a police car now follows her and that a police officer threatened her 20-year-old daughter, Karina.

“We are being terrorized, and we cannot go to the police, because they are the ones who are after us,” she said. “I really want to go back to normal life, but I’ve gone too far already.”

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