Russia opens criminal probe against ex-defence minister

MOSCOW - Russian investigators on Thursday brought criminal charges against former defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who was fired a year ago in a major corruption scandal.

The once influential minister was charged with negligence for ordering the refurbishment of a private holiday residence in southern Russia and the building of a road to it, said the Investigative Committee, which probes major criminal cases.

Serdyukov said he ordered the works to "allegedly create a recreation facility for the defence ministry," the committee said in a statement.

But "the road that was built could be used only by owners and visitors" of the Zhitnoye residence the committee said, adding that the works cost 56 million rubles ($1.6 million) in public funds.

The holiday residence reportedly belonged at the time to Serdyukov's son-in-law.

The former defence minister faces up to three months in prison if convicted of the charge.

Investigators have for the past year probed a multi-million-dollar property scam at a defence ministry holding company and have arrested several of Serdykov's subordinates.

But the former minister himself had once appeared untouchable and many had expected him to be spared criminal charges due to his close ties to the Kremlin.

Russia's first civilian defence minister was fired in November 2012, shortly after investigators seeking to question one of his assistants as part of the probe were met at the woman's front door by Serdyukov dressed in a bathrobe.

Following his sacking, President Vladimir Putin said that Serdyukov was free to work at any company that would hire him.

"It's not 1937 here," quipped Putin, referring to the peak year of Stalin-era purges.