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Russia: Skuratov Seeks Protection In Duma

  • Floriana Fossato

Prague, 8 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Prosecutor-General Yuri Skuratov yesterday tried to rally support for his cause in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, before the upper house -- the Federation Council -- considers his resignation later this month. He submitted it yesterday, the second time in the last two months.

Skuratov's statement that his suspension by President Boris Yeltsin last week was a "flagrant violation of the law" and an illegal attempt to hide corruption in the Kremlin generated applause in the Duma yesterday. He accused senior state officials of seeking to put pressure on law-enforcement bodies by opening criminal proceedings against him and trying to remove him from office. He said the measures against him are aimed at hampering progress on a number of high-profile corruption cases.

Yeltsin last week suspended Skuratov from his job on the basis of ongoing judicial proceedings for alleged abuse of power. In February, Skuratov handed in his resignation but the upper house reconfirmed him in office despite Yeltsin's wish to have him removed.

Skuratov had been invited to speak before the Duma yesterday by Communist deputies, who hoped he would give them fresh ammunition against Yeltsin ahead of an impeachment debate set for April 15.

However, Skuratov refused to name any of the allegedly corrupt officials whom he has accused of plotting against him because, in his words, "these are things that may cause a public outburst today."

While Communist deputies refrained from criticizing Skuratov after his speech, other deputies were less sympathetic. The leader of the centrist "Our Home Is Russia" faction, Vladimir Ryzhkov, spoke with journalists:

"For the moment, I have the impression that the prosecutor's office and Skuratov himself are doing what an inexperienced soldier would do sometimes at night. He takes a gun and, afraid of noises in the woods, starts shooting at all sides simultaneously, in order to overcome his fear. It's the same here. First there are criminal charges against [anti-semitic communist deputy Albert] Makashev, then on [business tycoons Boris] Berezovsky and [Aleksandr] Smolensky. Everything that can surface is brought up, to get the support of the right and of the left. It is clear that it is not a question of fighting corruption here. It is just an attempt to defend himself from dismissal using political means."

Skuratov has been investigating alleged wrongdoing -- including possible bribe-taking -- by Kremlin officials who allegedly may have given large construction contracts to a Swiss company, Mabetex.

Mabetex and Pavel Borodin, the powerful official who oversees the management of Kremlin properties -- an empire of government buildings, houses, holiday resorts and cars -- have denied any wrongdoing.

Prosecutors have also removed documents from some Kremlin offices in a move the Kremlin said was politically motivated. No one has been charged.

Yeltsin cannot fire Skuratov because this is the prerogative of the Federation Council. However, after suspending Skuratov last Friday, he asked senators to make the decision permanent. Regional bosses who form the chamber have sided with Skuratov so far, but it is unclear what they will do when they consider the issue again later this month. Federation Council speaker Yegor Stroyev seemed to indicate at the weekend that this time things might not go so smoothly for Skuratov. But it remains unclear how much influence he may have on members of the upper house.

Last month's vote indicated that regional bosses feel how rapidly power is slipping away from the Kremlin. In this respect, an important sign may come from the impeachment debate and from the future moves of the two men seen as the most powerful potential presidential candidates -- Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, himself a member of the Federation Council, who last month openly supported Skuratov.

Primakov said ahead of Skuratov's Duma appearance that he thinks the prosecutor-general should go. He was quoted as saying that "naturally, he must leave the post. All this fuss surrounding him is destabilizing society."

Skuratov yesterday rebuffed accusations that he had failed to fight corruption since his appointment in 1995 by pointing out several high-profile cases. And he hesitantly took indirect credit for warrants issued yesterday for the arrest of Berezovsky and Smolensky.

Skuratov did not say who had issued the warrants and gave no details of the charges. Russian media said the warrant for Berezovsky's arrest followed an investigation into alleged money laundering and illegal business activities. Berezovsky, currently in France, denies the allegations, dismissing the charges as a maneuver to prevent him from returning home.

Berezovsky is the most outspoken of the former oligarchs and, until recently, the most influential because of his formerly strong ties with Yeltsin's closest circle. The increasingly powerful Primakov, however, has expressed annoyance at Berezovsky's criticism of his government.

The warrant for Smolensky's arrest is allegedly tied to an investigation into a theft of state funds. He also denies any wrongdoing. Smolensky is currently in Austria.

Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer close to Berezovsky, said the fact that the warrants were issued for both men at the same time shows this was staged by the prosecutor-general's office for political effect.