* Kotova, ex-VTB banker, suspected of seeking $1.4 mln kickback
* Defence lawyer says case politically motivated
* Defendants face up to seven years jail if convicted
By Douglas Busvine
MOSCOW, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Russia’s former executive director at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development was charged with bribery on Tuesday in a case that has raised wider concerns over possible corruption at the multilateral lender.
Yelena Kotova was charged with soliciting $1.4 million from a representative of a Canadian oil company, along with former banker Igor Lebedev, in return for ensuring the approval of a sizable loan.
The charges were filed two years after Kotova was removed as Russia’s most senior representative at the EBRD, which was created in 1991 to help countries in eastern Europe make the transition from communism to the market economy.
“The perpetrators planned to receive money in return for working to approve a loan of $95 million to the foreign company,” the Russian Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Kotova, who returned to Moscow after leaving the bank, has repeatedly protested her innocence. The 58-year-old ex-banker has since launched a career as a writer, recently publishing her third novel, entitled “Women’s Corporation”.
In an interview in June 2011 with Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, Kotova said she had been the victim of a politically motivated internal inquiry led by a former criminal investigator from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The goal of the investigation, said her lawyer Sergei Mirzoyev, was to rule Kotova out of contention for a position of vice president at the EBRD that had been due to fall vacant.
Mirzoyev also dismissed the charges as baseless, saying investigators were relying on the testimony of one witness only and lacked documentary evidence to back their charges.
“They have been working on the case for a year and a half and they haven’t found any convincing evidence of guilt,” he told Reuters.
The witness has been named by Mirzoyev and in media reports as Sergei Chernikov, a Russian-born businessman who owns the Canadian-registered company, called CanBaikal Resources Inc, at the centre of the case.
Chernikov, a former regional official in Russia’s Natural Resources Ministry who later served on the Public Chamber, a consultative body set up by President Vladimir Putin, has moved to London, Russian news agency Rosbalt reported in late 2011.
He has not commented publicly on the case and could not immediately be reached.
Kotova, who was previously a vice president at state-controlled bank VTB, where Lebedev also used to work, was appointed by the government as its executive director to the London-based EBRD in 2005.
The senior position, in which she represented the interests of Russia and the former Soviet states of Belarus and Tajikistan, put her in a position to influence decisions by the 24-member EBRD board to award development loans.
She left the bank under a cloud at the end of 2010 and her legal immunity was lifted, clearing the way for Russian and British law enforcement authorities to open investigations.
The City of London Police’s own investigation continues, with two people charged in Britain with corruption and money laundering, three others on bail and further suspects abroad, a spokesman said.
The two defendants, named as Andrey Ryjenko, 40, and Tatjana Sanderson, 33, are due to stand trial in London on April 8.
The EBRD takes note of, and has “fully cooperated” with, the Russian investigation, said spokesman Jonathan Charles.
Kotova and Lebedev face fines or jail terms of up to seven years if convicted, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s investigative department said.
Investigators did not name the bank where Lebedev used to work, but the VTB press office confirmed that he was a former employee who “no longer works for the bank”. The pair have not been arrested but have been ordered to remain in Russia.