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By John Helmer in Moscow

Oleg Mitvol, Deputy Head of Rospriradnadzor, looks to be on the way out, perhaps for stepping on too many toes

In the first days of aerial warfare, during World War I, pilots had no tactical guidebook to help them plot their offence or defence. Attackers could fly unexpectedly out of the blinding light of the sun. Or they could lurk in cloud banks, waiting for an ambush. Those who survived describe their learning experience as akin to an animal instinct. In anticipating what the enemy might be likely to do, they imagined where and how they would conceal themselves for the attack. To defend themselves, they would then watch the sky for their alter ago.

Oleg Mitvol, deputy chief of Rospriradnadzor, Russia’s environmental protection and resource inspectorate, has been flying blind since he took his post several years ago. He has no alter ego, but he hasn’t lacked for enemies waiting in ambush. In the short history of post-Communist Russia, Mitvol is the first, and the only, federal government official to pursue the major and junior mining companies working in Russia for licence violations. He has also attacked major metal producers, like the steel group Evraz, for waste water violations, imposing the largest individual fine in the brief record of Russian environmental enforcement.

Two years ago, Mitvol was also the target of abuse in the western media, which took the side of Royal Dutch Shell, during its attempt to defend its management of gasfield and pipeline operations at the Sakhalin-2 project, in the Russian Fareast. Mitvol’s findings of violations by Shell were widely interpreted as having been requested by the Kremlin as a tactic to pressure Shell into selling its stake and operational control of the project to Gazprom.

If Mitvol has been flying under Kremlin orders, that hasn’t been obvious lately. For a month now hehas been under intense bureaucratic pressure to resign. He himself describes the unusual position, telling Mineweb: “There is nobody in particular behind my ouster. I think I am just too active and trying to do something that nobody wants me to do here – my job.”

On June 18, the state newsagency Itar-Tass reported that Mitvol “has been stripped of his water, forest and ecological supervision powers, which have constituted most of his competences”. An anonymous source was cited. It was also reported that “according to the source, the Rosprirodnadzor
chief, Vladimir Kirillov, has no intention of submitting a motion to Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev for re-appointing Mitvol as his deputy.” Itar-Tass confirmed Mitvol as saying: “As far as I know, in a future staff list, yet to be authorized, the position of a fourth deputy, that is, of yours truly, is absent.”

Almost a month has elapsed, and Mitvol has been forced to vacate his corner office at the Ministry of Natural Resources, overlooking the Moscow zoo. His secretaries have been reassigned. He is contactable only by his personal mobile telephone.

A spokesman for the ministry confirmed that Mitvol is no longer in his office.

A list of new appointees has been released, but the spokesman for Rospriradnadzor, Anna Khitrova, said no details of their career background or experience can be released, as the data are not public. Ostensibly in Mitvol’s place, Vladimir Leonov has been named. A Russian press report claims he has been the editor in chief of a St. Petersburg newspaper called Outrage, and then a member of the legal department of the Leningrad regional administration. In charge of ecological control Lyudmila Plyush has been named; she reportedly graduated from a St. Petersburg mining faculty in 2000.

Mitvol says that the Russian law on the federal service requires the appointment of ranking officials at Rosprirodnadzor to be done by an open competition. He charges there was no competition to replace him. According to Itar-Tass, Kirillov has asked Mitvol to resign of his own accord, but that Mitvol has refused.

Kirillov was asked about this, and the reappointment procedure. His secretary said he was travelling, and referred the questions to Kirillov’s spokesman, Marat Khairulin, new press secretary of Rosprirodnadzor. . He told Mineweb: “Im not aware if competition is required, or if it was done or not in Leonov’s case. I will try to check.” About the circumstances of the request for Mitvol’s resignation, he added that Kirillov is the only person who can respond, and since he is away, there can be no comment.

A Ministry source, who asked not to be identified, told Mineweb it was obvious to everyone that Mitvol is being ousted, but that, since he will not go voluntarily, he has been reduced to a rank without duties.

Mitvol’s position as the activist and highly public chief inspector, while formally serving as deputy head of the inspection agency, has led repeatedly to clashes with his nominal superior, the head of Rosprirodnadzor; and also with officials in charge of licensing of mine projects under Minister Trutnev. When major US investment funds wanted to clarify Russian licence compliance regulations and enforcement policy last year, they invited Mitvol to visit New York and Washington to explain.

It looks like Mitvol has flown too close to the sun. He told Mineweb that he recently met Trutnev. “He told me that I am working well. We shook hands. I was not able to report to him about all that has been happening. Formally, I am still the deputy head, but now without my own room.” Asked whether Trutnev is helping him to stay, and if so, who is behind the efforts to oust him, Mitvol responded: “I am not sure what this help means. He [Trutnev] appointed [former Rosprirodnadzor chief Sergei] Sai with whom I had conflict, and now he appointed Kirillov. I am too active and persistent to become Rosprirodnadzor head. That would never happen. We have very good relations with Trutnev. He told me that I am working well. That’s it, the end of the story.”

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