September 19, 2015 / 2:21 PM / 2 years ago

Russian regional governor, 18 others charged with fraud

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s top investigative body said on Saturday it had charged the governor of the Komi region along with 18 others with serious crimes including fraud and membership of a criminal group.

The Investigative Committee said in a statement that regional governor Vyacheslav Gayzer was suspected of heading a criminal group along with other senior officials including Gayzer’s deputy Alexei Chernov.

“The goal of the activities of the... criminal group was carrying out serious crimes, aimed at acquiring state property by criminal means,” it said.

The Committee also said that urgent measures aimed at identifying and arresting the suspects were underway.

Gayzer has been governor of Komi, a remote northern region rich in natural resources and also known for its reindeer and forests, since 2010, when he was proposed by Russia’s then President, Dmitry Medvedev.

Russian media reported that Gayzer had already been arrested, though the official statement did not confirm this. It was also unclear whether all of the 18 others charged were from the regional government.

The charges against Gayzer follow the arrest in March of another regional governor, Alexander Khoroshavin who headed the far eastern Sakhalin region, on bribery charges.

Although corruption is widely acknowledged as one of Russia’s most severe problems, arrests of senior officials such as regional governors are extremely rare.

Prior to this year, only one governor in post-Soviet history had ever been charged with criminal offences while in office, in 2006.

It was not immediately clear whether the arrest of two governors in the space of a few months was linked or a coincidence.

Following Khoroshavin’s arrest, some analysts said the Kremlin was probably sending a signal to regional leaders to take the fight against corruption seriously to prevent a public backlash that could ultimately hurt the popularity of President Vladimir Putin, who faces re-election in 2018.

Although Putin’s popularity remains high, the onset of tough economic times could undermine it and fuel public anger over rampant corruption.

Reporting By Jason Bush; editing by Clelia Oziel

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