On May 15th the trial of Alexei Navalny and Pyotr Ofitserov resumes. The court will hear testimony by regional government officials who worked with Navalny – from the Governor, Mr. Belykh, to his former assistant, Mr. Votinov, sentenced to three years in prison. While all the attention is focused on Alexei Navalny, Novaya Gazeta correspondents spoke to his co-defendant, Pyotr Ofitserov, and his wife.
In the indictment it is argued that the defendants induced the then-Director of Kirovles, Mr. Opalev, to participate in the embezzlement of lumber worth 16 million rubles, acting through Mr. Ofitserov’s Vyatka Logging Company (VLC). He allegedly forced the forestry enterprises (leskhozes) affiliated with Kirovles to sell their product at a reduced price. The amount of loss allegedly included not just the price differential, but the total value of lumber sold through VLC. (See Novaya Gazeta, No. 46 and 47 for the details of the court proceedings on the case).
Novaya Gazeta: So, what really happened? You must be tired of telling that story over and over again.
Ofitserov: Well, the story is kind of funny. I don’t mind telling it again. This case is one big joke.
The year is 2008. Crisis. My consulting firm is not doing much, and every two years I do some side business, just to stay sharp, not to end up becoming a pure theoretician. And then I see it on TV: Belykh, supporting businesses, et cetera.
When I first came there I found out that Kirovles was the main player there. Logging there is a pretty good business, lumber will always be in demand. Next time I came there wearing a suit and a tie, and went straight to Opalev. In early 2009 their business wasn’t that great: the crisis was followed by offseason. So for Opalev I was kind of a Godsend promising salvation.
Later I came to see Navalny to ask him about possible logging business opportunities. Then Opalev comes in, Navalny introduces us to each other. And I tell him: “We’ve met before.” The whole meeting lasted just about a couple of minutes. [In the Navalny case files only this meeting and the wiretaps of his friendly conversations with Ofitserov are associated with “embezzlement” of lumber. — Novaya Gazeta]
In March I rented an office, hired some people, but Opalev just wouldn’t sign the contract. He didn’t want to do business without prepayment, but payment deferral is a norm: that’s how they sell pretty much everything that you see in a shop window. In April he found himself in deep shit in terms of debts: he couldn’t pay his people. Finally he agreed: money in five days is better than no money.
The prosecutors in court stress that the contract doesn’t specify the price. In the lumber trade it’s common practice. If they have to specify a range of products and their value, any company would find such burden prohibitive— that’s why the details are listed in appendices.
My employees would contact customers all over Russia, as well as exporters, and the product orders were sent to Kirovles for approval. Nine of ten orders they would simply “kill.” For example there was an order from India— they wanted to buy a huge quantity of waste, such as slabs, trim, knotty boards. Opalev would always reply: “We are not interested.” Meanwhile, the company continued to pay fines for the waste rotting at sawmills.
I would transfer all the payments for the purchased lumber to a Kirovles account, and Opalev would first cover the expenses of the main office, while the leskhozes would only get one third. But they also have a lot of expenses, and they need the money right now. That’s why they would sell for cash at a 25 percent discount. So there was no point for them do deal with me.
In summer Opalev realized that nobody would ever forgive him the half billion of the company’s debt. He terminated the contract, but at that point I didn’t really care: there hadn’t been any deliveries for a while.
Novaya Gazeta: The Investigative Committee believes that Kirovles did not need a contract with VLC.
Ofitserov: Kirovles did need that contract. A manufacturer needs all kinds of marketing channels. It makes business more profitable. They needed us big time: they got our 16 billion in a short time and during a period when their business was really slow.
Novaya Gazeta: Did they ask you to testify against Navalny?
Ofitserov: Yes, they did. Twice. But carefully, trying to make it sound like a joke. I explained why I wouldn’t, and they left me alone. If I testified against Navalny, they probably wouldn’t lock me up, but then I would have to live with that for thirty, forty, or fifty years— until I die. So, my imprisonment would last for those 50 years.
Novaya Gazeta: Lida, do you agree with your husband?
Lida Ofitserova: Of course, that would be a betrayal.
Ofitserov: If I did that she would just leave me!