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Russia: Kulikov Says Sobchak Is Under Active Investigation

St. Petersburg, 20 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russia's Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, says federal prosecutors are investigating former St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak for corruption. "The case (against Sobchak) is being pursued actively," said Kulikov in Moscow yesterday.

Kulikov's statement was just the latest in a flurry of activity surrounding allegations of corruption in Sobchak's administration, which held office from 1991 until his defeat at the hands Vladimir Yakovlev in June 1996.

Kulikov did not specify in what capacity Sobchak figured in the investigation, but a week earlier, Kulikov had also dropped Sobchak's name in comments to reporters as one of several prominent Russian politicians under investigation for corruption. Sobchak has not returned requests for comment from our St Petersburg correspondent.

Kulikov's statement also come at a time when President Boris Yeltsin has warned Russia's regional governors that they will face renewed scrutiny from Moscow, and will be punished if they are found to be stealing from the public or abusing their positions.

The Kremlin has picked a very public fight with the powerful governor of the Primorsky Territory on Russia's Pacific coast, Yevgeny Nazdratenko. Meanwhile, police have been rounding up former chief executives and accusing them of corruption.

Moreover, earlier this month two former governors, Nikolai Sevrugin of Tula and Yury Komarovsky of the Nenets Autonomous Region, were arrested. Sevrugin is accused of pocketing $ 100,000 dollars in bribes and Komarovsky of misappropriating budgetary funds and giving suspicious credits to select local enterprises.

However, publicly suggesting that Sobchak was a corrupt mayor can be a dangerous -- and expensive -- pastime.

Monday, Novaya Gazeta published a lengthy and emotional piece by Pavel Voshchanov, a former press secretary for Yeltsin, who is currently being sued for libel by Sobchak over an article Voshchanov wrote for Komsomolskaya Pravda last year.

Sobchak has already won a 20-million-ruble settlement in January, in what was the first round of his suit against Voshchanov. In the second round that began this week, Sobchak is seeking one million dollars.

This year, Sobchak and former St Petersburg City Soviet chairman Alexander Belyayev reached an out of court settlement in a mutual libel suit - in which each was suing the other for accusations made during last summer's gubernatorial election.

According to the Novaya Gazyeta report, which cites federal prosecution documents, under investigation is an allegedly illegal privatization by Sobchak of an apartment building on the prestigious central St Petersburg street, Ulitsa Ryleyeva, as well as a real estate scandal, involving the former mayor's own address at 31 Moika Embankment.

The building on Ryleyeva had initially been scheduled to become a kindergarten, but local real estate agent Anna Yevgelskaya, a friend of Sobchak, is accused of manipulating privatization laws to sell the building as private apartments, according to federal prosecutors. According to the local daily newspaper Smena, Voshchanov skipped his court date Wednesday and Komsomolskaya Pravda representatives in the spectator's gallery at court were already talking of printing a retraction.

Neither Voshchanov nor Komsomolskaya Pravda officials could be reached for comment Thursday.

In Monday's Novaya Gazeta, Voshchanov claimed the finding in the first suit hinged on a minor attribution error in his original article. But, he said, the article still proved his initial allegations of corruption.

"To confess, I really don't want to pay Sobchak this money. Formally, (Sobchak) of course, won the suit. But factually, the most important question 'did he and the city administration he ran allow abuses?' remains open," Voshchanov wrote.

In a new twist, St Petersburg city Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, who narrowly defeated Sobchak in the gubernatorial (the renamed mayoral) race last summer, has now announced a libel suit of his own. Yakovlev is suing, of all people, Sobchak.

The pro-City Hall newspaper Sankt-Peterburgskiye Vedemosti reported that Yakovlev was seeking 50-million rubles in damages, over an interview Sobchak apparently gave the tabloid weekly Sovershenno Sekretno, in which he was quoted as saying Yakovlev had ties to the infamous Tambovskaya organized crime gang.

Meanwhile, local politicians and analysts were unanimous in suggesting that political motives were behind the investigation.

Andrei Piontkowski, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, while stopping short of naming Sobchak as a realistic presidential candidate, said that the ongoing investigation was political in nature. Piontkowsky likened the campaign against Sobchak to that against Sergei Stankevich, the former advisor to President Boris Yeltsin, who is under indictment for corruption. "This is political," said Piontkowsky. "There are people in the interior ministry who want to discredit the democrats, they went after Stankevich and now they are going after Sobchak."

Stankevich is currently behing held by police in Warsaw on an international arrest warrant, and awaiting a court's decision on extradition to Moscow.

Vatanyar Yagya, a Legislative Assembly deputy and a former Sobchak advisor, also said the investigation is part of an ongoing effort to discredit Sobchak. "Sobchak is still a prominent politician, and sociological surveys show that he could return to politics and even contend for the presidency in 2001," said Yagya. "There are many people in Moscow who do not want to see this happen."