MOSCOW – Crack police forces raided the office of Russia’s richest woman on Thursday in a probe linked to the $435 million she received from a bank founded by the deposed mayor of Moscow — who is also her husband.
Yelena Baturina called the sweep a political provocation that had nothing to do with the money her Inteko construction company received in a complicated scheme from the Bank of Moscow.
“I know for certain that these searches have no relation to either our company or the Bank of Moscow,” Interfax quoted Baturina as saying.
“This is simply an ordered (raid) and a form of (political) pressure,” she added.
Gun-toting, masked policemen later also searched the offices of the Bank of Moscow and apartments of several of its executives.
“The searches are being conducted as part of a criminal investigation into the embezzlement of 13 billion rubles from the Bank of Moscow,” an interior ministry spokeswoman said.
“The money received through this loan was transferred to the personal account of Baturin,” interior ministry investigator Irina Dudukina said in televised remarks.
The probe into the disputed 2009 loan was launched only weeks after the dramatic departure of Yury Luzhkov from his mayoral seat over the same allegations.
The Kremlin accused the mayor of corruption and investigators launched an inquiry into a 12.76 billion ruble (435 million dollar, 320 million euro) loan the bank issued to a little known firm that was allegedly nothing more than a shell company.
Various media reported that the small firm then went on to purchase a plot of land at what investigators believe was an inflated price from Baturina’s debt-ridden Inteko company.
Inteko allegedly used the proceeds to pay off a large chunk of its maturing debts and stay solvent.
The Vedomosti business daily said the company that acted as the intermediary in the transaction was partially owned by Bank of Moscow executives and had been set up only three months prior to the disputed land deal.
The Financial Times reported that the transaction took place on the same day as the Moscow city parliament approved a 15-billion-ruble transfer to the Bank of Moscow.
It said Russia’s interior ministry was checking whether the funds were illegally transferred to Baturina to help her settle her debts.
Baturina’s whereabouts were unclear Thursday.
Luzhkov has recently sought to establish residency in Latvia and Baturina is known to spend some of her time in Austria.
But investigators stressed Thursday that they may have to call Russia’s richest woman in for questioning — something that seemed unimaginable while Luzhkov was still mayor.
“If there are reasons to believe that Baturina knows something, we will invite Baturina” for questioning, interior ministry investigator Alexei Naichin told the ITAR-TASS news agency.
Baturina’s $1.1 billion fortune is widely believed to have come from the real estate contracts that Inteko was awarded by the city without tenders and at inflated prices.
A series of national television specials aired these allegations in the weeks preceding Luzhkov’s ouster as the once-powerful mayor bitterly fought off the Kremlin’s efforts to re-establish its control over Russia’s richest city.
The deputy head of Russia’s audit chamber said Thursday that the financial ties between Inteko and the Bank of Moscow go much deeper than what has been reported so far.
“The loans extended by the bank to Inteko are considerably greater that the 13 billion rubles mention thus far,” audit chamber member Mikhail Beskhmelnitsyn told Interfax.
The Bank of Moscow issued a brief statement Thursday calling all charges “fabrications”.