The collapse of the Arashukov clan: Russian senator arrested for murder and involvement in organised crime

On 30 January 2019, Valentina Matvienko, chairwoman of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, closed the morning parliamentary session without prior notice, ordering journalists to leave the assembly hall. Shortly after, a group of law enforcement officers, led by prosecutor general Yury Chayka and the head of the Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin sealed the entrances. Rauf Arashukov, a 32-year-old senator, representing the Karachayevo-Cherkessia region, was subsequently detained by investigators and members of the Federal Security Service’s (FSB) Economic Security Service on charges of murder, witness tampering and involvement in organised crime. Senator Arashukov had reportedly tried to leave the assembly hall before Ms Matvienko ordered him to “sit back down.” Arashukov’s colleagues unanimously granted the request by law enforcement officials to lift parliamentary immunity and authorise the arrest.

By Veronica Bulat, Analyst, Aperio Intelligence

According to the Russian Investigative Committee, Arashukov is suspected of having paid for the assassination of Aslan Zhukov, deputy chairman of the Adyge Khase youth movement in March 2010, and Fral Shebzukhov, adviser to the head of the Karachay-Cherkessian region in May 2010. He is also suspected of pressuring a witness in the Zhukov case. The investigative authority believes that Arashukov paid RUB 1.5 million for both murders.

Back in September 2018, business newspaper RBK, reported that Rasul Adzhyev, a suspect in Zhukov’s murder, had named Mr Arashukov as having contracted the killing. Earlier, in 2012 and 2017, two other suspects in the murder of Shebzukhov testified against. Arashukov. According to the testimony records, reportedly available to RBK, Mr Arashukov paid RUB 500,000 to “intimidate and beat” Shebzukhov (who was eventually murdered) and RUB 1 million to kill Zhukov. The information suggests that the Russian investigative authorities had known about Mr Arashukov’s alleged involvement in these murders long before his recent arrest and the failure to evaluate his integrity before his appointment to the Federation Council in 2016 is surprising. Shortly after Arashukov’s arrest, Ms Matvienko stated that she had always considered his appointment to the Federation Council an error, because “there were rumours that he might be involved in a number of crimes.”

In September 2018, members of the Zhukov and Shebzukhov families picketed outside the building of the Investigative Committee in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, demanding that a criminal case be opened against the senator. They also sent a written request to the chairman of the Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin, the director of the FSB Alexander Bortnikov and the prosecutor general Yury Chayka and Federation Council chairwoman Valentina Matvienko.

According to Russian law, members of the Federation Council are classified as special subjects, protected by political immunity: only the chair of the Investigative Committee can sanction their prosecution, with the consent of the chair of the Federation Council, obtained based on a submission by the prosecutor general. Eventually, without precedent, all three authorities cooperated and were present for the arrest of Mr Arashukov at the assembly hall on 30 January.

Arashukov pleaded not guilty, claiming that the case against him is politically motivated. The Basmanny court of Moscow sanctioned his arrest pending trial for two months, until 30 March.

A short road to success

Mr Arashukov was the youngest senator in Russia, appointed to the Federation Council in 2016 at the age of 31. His professional biography is impressive. A few months before turning 18, he became a deputy of Stavropol City’s Duma. At 21 he became minister of labour and social development of the Karachayevo-Cherkessian Republic. Following his arrest, the media reported that he had only six grades of schooling. According to his official biography on the Federation Council’s website, in 2007 Mr Arashukov received a diploma in jurisprudence from Stavropol State University. However, during the hearing at the Basmanny court, Mr Arashukov reportedly could not remember the exact name of the university at which he had studied. Radio Govorit Moskva interviewed several graduates of the Stavropol State University, who graduated in the same year as Mr Arashukov, but no one could remember him. Furthermore, during his interrogation, Arashukov reportedly requested a translator because he did not speak Russian well enough and needed translation into his native language. In the Karachayevo-Cherkessian Republic there are four other minority languages, besides Russian: Abaza, Cherkess, Karachay and Nogai. Given that Russian is the working language of the Federation Council, it is unclear how he met his law-making responsibilities.

The Raul Arashukov case

Raul Arashukov, Rauf Arashukov’s father and advisor to the CEO of Gazprom’s subsidiary Gazprom MezhRegionGaz, was detained on the same day as his son, on separate charges. He is suspected of stealing natural gas worth RUB 30 billion and of creating a criminal group. Raul is said to have used his political ties to help promote his relatives and acquaintances into high positions in energy companies in the North Caucasus region. According to investigators, over a period of several years, Raul and his accomplices signed contracts on gas supplies to enterprises in the region, which exceeded the real demand and sold what was left, embezzling billions of roubles.

At the request of the Investigative Committee, four key executives of Gazprom’s subsidiaries in the North Caucasus were arrested as part of the case, including Rauf Arashukov’s cousin Ruslan Arashukov. On 1 February, Moscow’s Basmanny court ordered the arrest of all the defendants until 30 March. Raul denies all the allegations, insisting that the case against him is fabricated. According to a statement from the Investigative Committee, “Other episodes of criminal activity by the defendants are being investigated, as well as other persons, possibly involved in these crimes.”

Why now?

The investigative authorities were aware of Rauf Arashukov’s alleged involvement in criminal activities for some time, even though legal proceedings against him, his father and their alleged accomplices have only just been acted on. So, why now? What is the connection between allegedly stealing RUB 30 billion from Gazprom and the contract killings? Why were Rauf and Raul Arashukov arrested at the same time?

Russian media speculates that Arashukov avoided prosecution for years because the murder cases had been dealt with by the local Investigative Committee of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, where Arashukov’s family reportedly has “friends.” Several Russian media outlets have also reported that Mr Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, is a close friend of Rauf and Raul Arashukov and has repeatedly visited them in the village of Khabez in Karachayevo-Cherkessia. In response to these allegations, the Investigative Committee published a statement denying any ties between the Bastrykin and the Arashukov family.

Most Russian media outlets link the recent prosecution with the conflict between the Arashukov family and Ramzan Kadyrov, the powerful head of the Chechen Republic, also situated in the North Caucasus. In the North Caucasus, Raul is considered the “gas king” due to his influence in the gas sector in the region. In parallel to his role as advisor to the CEO of Gazprom MezhRegionGaz, he has also served as a member of the board of directors of AO Gazprom Gazoraspredeleniye Stavropol. Prior to this, between 2007-2011 he was general director of OAO StavropolskiyKrayGaz and between 2002-2011 general director of OOO Gazprom MezhRegionGaz Stavropol. The Arashukov family had control over all gas flows in Southern Russia, except for the Chechen Republic and as such tried to enter the sphere of Mr Kadyrov’s interests. Mr Kadyrov allegedly knew that Raul conducted fraudulent businesses with regional gas and this was key when in January 2019 Gazprom MezhRegionGaz refused to write off RUB 9 billion of the Chechen Republic’s gas debts.

On 16 January, at the request of the Prosecutor’s Office of the Chechen Republic, the Zavodskoy District Court of Grozny (Chechen Republic) ordered Gazprom MezhRegionGaz Grozny to write off RUB 9 billion in gas debts of the Chechen population. This debt had been accrued over almost nine years, from January 2007 to September 2015. The Prosecutor’s Office stated that the claim to write off the debts had been issued to avoid “social tension,” which according to them could have led to protests in Chechnya. This decision caused outrage among deputies in other regions of Russia, who demanded that the gas debts of their regions be written off as well. As a result, Gazprom MezhRegionGaz Grozny filed an appeal against the Grozny court’s decision.

Reputational impact

The Federation Council has long stopped playing an important role in the governmental structure, because on Vladimir Putin’s ascension to the Russian presidency the Federation Council has significantly reduced its decision-making power, becoming a “rubber stamp” body for the executive branch and the ruling United Russia party. The Federation Council is currently a comfortable workplace for Russian elites and a platform for lobbying rather than an important representative of regional interests and a voice in the Russian political system. In this context, Mr Arashukov’s theatrical arrest has affected the reputation of the Federation Council, as a state authority. Mr Arashukov’s arrest became the subject of “memes” and jokes, emphasising the negative perception of the Federation Council and its senators. One of the most popular was “When Prosecutor General Chayka and head of the Investigative Committee Bastrykin stated at the assembly hall that they came to arrest a criminal, all the senators, including Matvienko, ran away. The only one left standing was Arashukov, because he did not understand what they said in Russian.”

Although Mr Arashukov’s arrest during a live parliamentary session was unprecedented, he is far from being the first lawmaker to face criminal charges. According to Pavel Chikov, the head of the Agora human rights group, at least 12 senators have been convicted for crimes including rape and murder over the past decade. International arrest warrants have been issued for three former senators, while a fourth ex-senator faces fraud charges.

This case raises a lot of questions and we can only assume that Arashukov’s prosecution was a result of effective cooperation between Russia’s law enforcement institutions or a result of selective prosecution, as a by-product of their presence becoming uncomfortable for some influential people. The most difficult obstacle in uncovering the real reason for their prosecution is that only one person in Russia can sanction such a wide-reaching prosecution, but who dares to ask him uncomfortable questions?