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By John Helmer in Moscow

Oleg Mitvol, Russia’s well-known mining regulator and gadfly to Aim-traded stock values, has filed a half-dozen lawsuits in Moscow, challenging the terms of his removal from his functions. And he appears to have Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin on his side.

The legal and political moves follow months of effort by Vladimir Kirillov, who as the new chief of Russia’s mine licence inspectorate, Rosprirodnadzor, has tried to fire Mitvol, his independent deputy. In the annals of the federal Ministry of Natural Resources, Mitvol’s resistance is unique, as is the apparent reluctance of the minister, Yury Trutnev, a former provincial governor backed by the LUKoil oil company, to intervene in the contest of wills, and in the conflict beneath the surface of Russia’s use-or-lose resource licensing policy.

Way back on 18th June, the state newsagency Itar-Tass reported that Mitvol had been “stripped of his water, forest, and ecological supervision powers, which have constituted most of his competences”. This was the first sign of an apparent official decision, following informal efforts from new boss Kirillov, dating back to last February, to press Mitvol to resign. An anonymous source was cited by Itar-Tass for its information. It was also reported that “according to the source, the Rosprirodnadzor chief, Vladimir Kirillov, has no intention of submitting a motion to the government, in the shape of Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev, for re-appointing Mitvol as his deputy.” Itar-Tass quoted 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.” So at least there was some agreement on that score.

Then in July, Mitvol was forced to vacate his office at the Ministry of Natural Resources, and lost his secretaries. He remained contactable only on his personal mobile telephone, and he had lost access to his official files and to the ministry’s licence and reserves database. At the time, a spokesman for the ministry confirmed that Mitvol was no longer in his office.

A list of new appointees was issued by Kirillov, but the spokesman for Rospriradnadzor, Anna Khitrova, said no details of their career backgrounds or experience could be released, as the data are not public. Ostensibly in Mitvol’s place Vladimir Leonov was appointed. A Russian press report claimed he once was the editor in chief of a St. Petersburg newspaper called Outrage, and was subsequently a member of the legal department of the Leningrad regional administration. Lyudmila Plyush was put in charge of ecological control. She reportedly graduated from a St.Petersburg mining faculty in 2000.

Mitvol tells Minews that the Russian legislation 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. And according to Itar-Tass, Kirillov asked Mitvol to resign of his own accord, and Mitvol refused.

Meanwhile, Kirillov declines to explain his position directly, and refers questions to spokesman, Marat Khairulin who says: “I’m not aware if competition is required, or if it was done or not in Leonov’s case”. A Ministry source, who asked not to be identified, told Minews that it’s 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.

So on 11th July, Mitvol sent a letter to the General Prosecutor, Yury Chaika, requesting an investigation of the unlawful way in which the new appointments had been made. In retaliation, Rosprirodnadzor sent an official request for federal and regional prosecutors to investigate Mitvol’s own inspections of mine licences and company operations in several regions, including Yamal-Nenets and Komi, in the north; Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia; and Tatarstan and Rostov in the south. One of these Mitvol cases turned into a highly publicized clash between the inspector and Peter Hambro Mining over reserve estimation and licence compliance.

Then less than a month after Mitvol and Kirillov traded charges at the prosecutors’ office, the prime ministry issued a decree, dated 5th August, reducing the number of authorized deputies to the chief of Rosprirodnadzor from four to three. Mitvol claimed credit, telling a Moscow newspaper on 1st September, “I am inclined to think that my activity on this post strongly disturbs someone. Probably, I have touched something quite serious.” He did not elaborate. Mitvol has previously told Minews: “There is nobody in particular behind my ousting. I think I am just too active and trying to do something that nobody wants me to do here – my job.”

Moving into autumn and on 1st September Kirillov sent a letter to minister Trutnev, requesting the ousting of Mitvol. A Moscow newspaper was provided with the details, which were published the same day. The press report claimed that Kirillov had been motivated to act because of a check Mitvol had ordered on environmental compliance by Norilsk Nickel, Russia’s largest mining company. An anonymous source, within Rosprirodnadzor, was reported as claiming that the Norilsk Nickel inspection had “not resulted in any positive results.” On 2nd September Mitvol told Minews he asked Kirillov to confirm what had been reported publicly, namely that the minister had been petitioned to sack him. He said that Kirillov replied that he had not sent the letter referred to above, and that he intended to wait until September 15.

Marat Khairulin, Kirillov’s spokesman, was asked to explain what was happening, but refused to respond. A deputy minister, Semyon Levy, reportedly signed a document on Mitvol’s dismissal, but according to Mitvol, it lacks the minister’s authority, and has never been officially delivered to Mitvol himself. A senior-level source in Trutnev’s office declined to comment, claiming “I don’t know what is happening there.” A Moscow court ruling on 12th December went against Mitvol, but he told Minews he is appealing. “This is only the first case. I have four or five more cases pending. All I’ve asked the court is to oblige the ministry to fulfill the government’s order. It seems the judge was not daring enough to do it.” He is still collecting his government salary, Mitvol adds.

According to Mitvol, the conflict over his job has split Minister Trutnev from Deputy Minister Levy. He also claims that prosecutors continue to investigate allegations of abuse by ministry bureaucrats in charge of supervising licence compliance in the mining sector. In November, Deputy Prime Minister Sechin, who is the senior government official in charge of mining and metals, was reported as writing to Trutnev, implicitly backing Mitvol’s claim that Kirillov has been acting in violation of his duties. Sechin reportedly ordered Trutnev to investigate “systematic disregard of government orders and a failure to provide information”.

“My position is that I would have quit by myself,” Mitvol now says, “But since there are so many people who want to fire me unlawfully, I won’t go away. Everything changes every single day… And so I am simply waiting, drinking tea with honey, and observing.”

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