The Kremlin has launched a crackdown over a spaceport project that was supposed to be the jewel of Russia’s space programme but has become mired in corruption costing more than $170m (£132m), with investigations alleging blatant theft and illegal enrichment by officials and contractors.
As state investigators have opened new criminal cases, the project has also become the target of Russia’s opposition, with the corruption whistleblower Alexei Navalny releasing an investigation into land and cars acquired by the head of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency.
“A failed project that is still being built years after its deadline with a budget that has been doubled and during which billions [of rubles] were stolen: of course it should bear the name of Vladimir Putin,” Navalny said in reference to the possibility that the spaceport could be named after the Russian president.
Putin announced the construction of the Vostochny cosmodrome in the far east of Russia in 2010. It was aimed at reducing dependence on Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome, which has hosted space launches since the 1950s under the Soviet Union, and in September, Putin called it the “most important construction project of national significance”.
In remarks last week, Putin criticised the £3.6bn project, adopting public frustration against the graft that is said to have run rampant under his appointees, sending the project over budget and years behind schedule.
“It was said 100 times: do this transparently, there won’t be any more money, the project nearly has a national character. But no, they’re still stealing hundreds of millions, hundreds of millions,” Putin said.
The problems raised are typical for Russian mega-projects including bridges, roads and international events such as the Olympics, which have gone over budget and faced accusations of graft on a massive scale.
Putin’s public attack has been met with a flurry of activity by investigators, who have announced that 58 officials involved in the project have been sentenced for fraud, including for the purchase of sub-standard concrete that resulted in expensive repairs to a launchpad.
Fresh cases were announced this week, one involving allegations of a company falsifying rental costs for building equipment, resulting in a £3m loss.
Putin’s proximity to the project has also made it a target for the opposition, as Navalny directed criticism towards a senior space official appointed by Putin in 2018.
Using official declarations, Navalny identified plots of land in a suburb of Moscow acquired by Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, which lie adjacent to large plots owned by members of his extended family and former aides. The land was worth far more than Rogozin’s salary as a veteran public official could explain, Navalny claimed.
Rogozin, a former cabinet member who oversaw Russia’s military-industrial complex and space programme, has been a lightning rod for criticism for his oversight of the project. He claimed last week he was happy that the Kremlin was getting involved and that those accused of corruption had been removed from the project by authorities.
The cosmodrome hosted its first launch in 2016, but the construction of launchpads intended for Russia’s new generation of Angara rockets are years behind schedule.
Allegations of corruption and mismanagement at the cosmodrome began several years ago. In 2015, workers went on hunger strike after complaining they were not being paid.