Moscow, 22 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's upper house of parliament yesterday rejected an appeal by president Boris Yeltsin to dismiss Prosecutor-General Yuri Skuratov in a decision that many say deals a big blow to Yeltsin's authority.
The motion in the Federation Council, held behind closed doors and with several leading politicians in attendance, fell far short of the votes required for approval. The Council has already once refused to endorse Yeltsin's dismissal of Skuratov. Council approval is required by law.
Taking part in the vote were 144 of the 178 Federation Council members. Only 61 voted to sack Skuratov, while 79 voted to keep him in his post.
Some political observers, impressed by the number of meetings Yeltsin and his aides had held with regional leaders ahead of the session, were expecting a quick vote in Yeltsin's favor.
However, the decision dragged on for hours, until its surprising outcome.
The vote is important to Yeltsin because Skuratov had launched a probe into alleged corruption among high-ranking officials and hinted that members of Yeltsin's inner circle might be involved. Kremlin officials and others allegedly involved in the bribe-taking have denied any wrongdoing, and no one has yet been charged.
The daily "Kommersant" wrote ahead of the vote that the motion would decide the fate of Yeltsin's power. A vote against Skuratov's resignation would mean, the paper said, "Yeltsin's de-facto impeachment."
In the Federation Council corridors yesterday, senators seemed to agree with this point of view.
Krasnoyarsk governor and presidential hopeful Aleksandr Lebed, one of the deputies, had said it's not a question of a feud between Skuratov and Yeltsin. If Skuratov remains, Lebed said, this will mean the end of presidential power.
Throughout the day there were only scanty reports of what Skuratov told the deputies. Observers say Skuratov's speech and answers provided few sensations.
Skuratov apparently did not name any of the allegedly corrupt officials whom he has accused of plotting against him. Reports said Skuratov answered negatively when senators asked him whether Yeltsin or members of his family were directly involved in wrongdoing.
Yeltsin's chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, at the beginning of the session read out a letter in which Yeltsin urged senators to remove Skuratov from his post.
Reading from the letter, Voloshin told regional bosses that "Uncertainty about the leadership of law enforcement agencies is the best weapon in the hands of criminals and irresponsible politicians."
But some members of the house angrily replied that the Kremlin had failed to explain clearly why Skuratov was not fit for the job. Voloshin did not answer questions on the issue, and called for a closed debate, a request that Council Speaker Yegor Stroyev immediately approved and supported.
Afterward, some influential regional leaders, including Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimyev and Samara governor Konstantin Titov, expressed their displeasure at the decision.
Stressing the political significance of yesterday's debate, several high-ranking officials, including Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Russia's top security official Vladimir Putin, attended the session. Primakov canceled a scheduled meeting with Duma leaders in order to be present.
Russian television reported that Primakov apparently asked the senators to approve Skuratov's resignation.