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By John Helmer in Moscow

Oleg Mitvol, Russia’s well-known mining regulator and gadfly to AIM-listed 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, 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 below the surface of Russia’s use-or-lose resource licensing policy.

On June 18, 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 by Kirillov, commencing in 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 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.”

In July, Mitvol had been forced to vacate his office at the Ministry of Natural Resources, and lost his secretaries. He remained contactable only by his personal mobile telephone, but 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 is 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 background or experience could be released, as the data are not public. Ostensibly in Mitvol’s place, Vladimir Leonov was 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 has told 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. According to Itar-Tass, Kirillov asked Mitvol to resign of his own accord, but that Mitvol had refused.

Kirillov declines to explain his position directly, and refers questions to spokesman, Marat Khairulin. He says: “Im 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 it is 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.

On July 11, Mitvol sent a letter to the General Prosecutor, Yury Chaika, requesting an investigation of the unlawful appointments process. in retaliation, Rosprirodnadzor sent an official request for federal and regional prosecutors to investigate Mitvol’s 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 over reserve estimation and licence compliance by Peter Hambro Mining.

Less than a month after Mitvol and Kirillov traded charges at the prosecutors’ office, the prime ministry issued a decree, dated August 5, reducing the number of authorized deputies to the chief of Rosprirodnadzor from four to three. Mitvol claimed credit, telling a Moscow newspaperon September 1, “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. Earlier, Mitvol has told Minews: “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 September 1, Kirillov sent a letter to Trutnev, requesting the ouster 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 of 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 September 2, Mitvol has told Minews, he asked Kirillov to confirm what had been reported publicly. He says that Kirillov replied that he had not sent the letter, and that he intended to wait until September 15.

Marat Khairulin, Kirillov’s spokesman, was asked to explain what is 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 delievered 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 December 12 went against Mitvol, but he told Minews he is appealing. “This is only the first case. I have 4 or 5 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 bureauc rats 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 [or suppression of] 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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