by Douglas Messier
The Russian government says corruption has resurfaced at the Vostochny Cosmodrome despite years of efforts to get the problem under control.
Two government officials have been arrested for their alleged involvement in an embezzlement and bribery scheme at the spaceport in the country’s Far East. Russia Today reports:
Roman Bobkov, the head of the state entity operating the cosmodrome, has been placed in pre-trial detention for two months by a local court, on Saturday, and faces several charges, including fraud, abuse of office, and incitement to abuse of office and forgery. He assumed the role of director at Vostochny in March 2019.
Bobkov is accused of using bribery to entice a senior Defense Ministry inspector, Dmitry Fomintsev, to file fake reports on the commissioning of several of the spaceport’s major water-supply facilities. The fraudulent documents were allegedly drawn up to conceal Bobkov’s own misconduct during their construction, which had left them unfinished.
The official’s machinations have cost the Russian authorities some 500 million rubles ($6.56 million), Moscow daily Kommersant reported. They also posed a potential safety hazard, as the water-supply facilities in question were meant to provide water for both the rocket-fuel production facility, and fuel storage and fire protection systems in the neighboring town of Tsiolkovsky, in the Amur Region, a remote Far Eastern territory, bordering China.
Fomintsev was arrested earlier this week. According to Russian media, he had agreed to forge the reports in exchange for a lucrative job offer that had been extended by Bobkov. The director offered both the inspector and his wife positions within his domain, with a salary of 500,000 rubles ($6,560) a month each.
Last week, Roscosmos CEO Dmitry Rogozin fired Evgeny Rogoza, general director of the Vostochny Cosmodrome Directorate. No reason was given for the decision, but the decision might be related to the alleged embezzlement scheme.
Roscosmos also announced that Rogozin had reprimanded two top officials from the Center for Operation of Ground-Based Space Infrastructure Facilities (TsENKI): Director General Andrei Okhlopkov and Chief Engineer Vladimir Zhuk. No reason was given for the reprimand.
Vostochny has been plagued for years by corruption, schedule delays and occasional problems paying workers. In 2015, a man whose company was doing construction at the spaceport was arrested on charges of embezzlement while driving a Mercedes encrusted with $300,000 worth of Swarovski diamonds. He was arrested while on the run in the Belarus capital of Minsk.
Russia Today reported last year that President Vladimir Putin was furious over the dozens of people working on Vostochny who had been jailed on corruption charges.
The Russian president grilled the government for allowing misappropriation of state funds at the Vostochny Cosmodrome and other large-scale state construction projects on Monday. He reminded the ministers that it wasn’t the first time he has addressed the problem.
“We’ve said it a hundred times – work transparently as big money is being allocated; it’s practically a national project. But no, they keep stealing in hundreds of millions!” [Putin said.]
But the Vostochny project was marred by corruption scandals, lengthy delays and protests by workers over unpaid salaries. A total of 11 billion rubles (around $172 million) have been embezzled during the construction, the Kremlin press-secretary Dmitry Peskov said on Monday. Of this, 3.5 billion rubles (around $55 million) were later returned to the state budget, he added.
The General Prosecutor’s office found 17,000 violations on site between 2014 and 2018, initiating some 140 criminal cases. More than 30 people were handed prison sentences since then, including the head of the Vostochny Cosmodrome’s primary contractor.
Russia is building Vostochny to reduce its dependence on Baikonur Cosmodrome, which ended up in independent Kazakhstan after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Russia has a long-term lease to use Baikonur.
The slow pace of development has left Russia still largely dependent upon Baikonur. Only five Soyuz-2 launches have been conducted from Vostochny since the first one on April 28, 2016.
Vostochny has a single operational Soyuz-2 launch pad. Workers are currently constructing a launch complex for the Angara family of boosters. Angara has only been launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia, which only handles launches into polar orbit.
Russia will be able to retire its aging Proton booster that launches from Plesetsk and Baikonur once Vostochny’s Angara launch complex becomes operational. Unlike Angara, Proton uses toxic fuels that can pollute the ground.