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Russia: Federation Council Votes To Keep Skuratov

Moscow, 18 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The surprise vote in Russia's upper house of parliament (March 17) to overwhelmingly reject the resignation of Prosecutor-General Yuri Skuratov has added a new element to a story ripe with political intrigue and economic implications.

Skuratov abruptly tendered his resignation to President Boris Yeltsin last month. He cited health reasons and for weeks was hospitalized at Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital.

Skuratov's resignation, however, came just one day after he revealed that Russia's Central Bank had been channeling thousands of millions of dollars in reserves through an obscure offshore company. Shortly after Skuratov's resignation, security forces raided companies owned by businessman-turned-politician Boris Berezovsky, known for his powerful Kremlin connections.

Yeltsin immediately accepted Skuratov's resignation. Speaking by telephone with Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov (March 16) -- Yeltsin stressed the need to quickly appoint Skuratov's successor.

However, Russia's Constitution says that accepting the prosecutor-general's resignation is the prerogative of the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council.

A healthy-looking Skuratov appeared yesterday before the Council and told senators that he is ready to continue his work if -- as he put it -- "you extend your trust and support to me." The vote was 142 to 6 to keep Skuratov in his job.

Skuratov acknowledged that health was not the reason behind his resignation. Without naming names, he said powerful forces had driven a wedge between him and Yeltsin, forcing him to resign. He also spoke of unnamed people using criminal methods to collect information about his private life. His revelations lend credence to rumors widespread in Moscow in the last few weeks that he was being blackmailed. Gennady Seleznyev -- the Communist speaker of the lower house of parliament, the State Duma -- yesterday confirmed those rumors, saying there had been "direct threats from the mass media" to reveal compromising information about Skuratov.

"A big contribution to the resignation process came from well-known oligarchs, who have their own interest in criminal cases linked with corruption in top power posts. Among those cases are in the first place facts concerning [airline] Aeroflot, [car dealer] Avtovaz, private security company Atoll and others. At the time [of the resignation], my personal contacts with the president also ceased. Maybe I was wrong, maybe I made mistakes; but I was under the impression that I lost the president's support. At the end, facts surrounding my personal life were released. They were obtained with criminal methods, in order to put pressure on me. When I sent my [resignation] letter to the president, I hoped to attract the attention of the head of state to the facts taking place around me and the general prosecutor office."

All of the Federation Council members taking the floor called for a vote in an effort to keep Skuratov in his job. Some -- like Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev -- went so far as to tell colleagues that the upper house was about to vote, not only on Skuratov's future, but on the very values its members support. They said senators would vote "for the victory of criminals or for the victory of the law."

Sources in the Federation Council noted, however, that most of the governors taking the floor in support of Skuratov are close to the Communist Party and some are themselves under investigation for financial wrongdoings, such as Tula Governor Vasily Starodubtsev. According to the sources, this is the sign of a possible alliance between Skuratov with Yeltsin's Communist foes.

Skuratov's resignation unleashed an outpouring of speculation in Russia's media and in the country's political circles. Virtually no one in Moscow believed failing health was the real reason behind Skuratov's resignation.

Moscow's leading newspapers yesterday ran front-page articles predicting that the Federation Council -- after listening to Skuratov's reasons for his move -- would quickly vote to accept his resignation.

Following a meeting of leading television and media executives (March 16), the director of Russia's ORT television -- Igor Shabdurasulov -- said senators should accept Skuratov's resignation immediately and without discussion. ORT is only partly under the control of its major shareholder, the state. Its management is reportedly controlled by Berezovsky, who is fighting with the government and parliament to maintain his grip on the network, Russia's largest.

Political analysts say the Federation Council vote -- openly contradicting Yeltsin's approval of Skuratov's resignation -- indicates a new conflict between the president and parliament could be in the making.

According to influential State Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, the vote "creates a precedent for the independence of the general prosecutor's office from the Kremlin. The consequences could be positive, but also negative. We'll see."

Yeltsin's representative in the Federation Council, Yuri Yarov, said Skuratov's decision to remain in his job with the support of the Federation Council is "strange and surprising."

Yeltsin and Primakov met unexpectedly after the vote. The Kremlin's press service said in a statement that Primakov and Yeltsin agree that "indecency and political intrigue are incompatible with the high function of the prosecutor-general."

Skuratov said in his speech that he had "done nothing against the law" and called on the Federation Council's support to find ground for talks with Yeltsin.

Sergei Markov -- director of Moscow's Institute of Political Studies -- told RFE/RL that "it is absolutely clear that a new, serious conflict is brewing. Yeltsin did sign Skuratov's resignation letter and the Federation Council has just voted against his decision." According to Markov,"what happens next is unclear. The constitution gives no indication in this direction because the law usually includes only rational developments. It is possible that a special commission will be appointed to find a compromise and will try to solve the controversy with political methods."