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Putin's Old Nemesis Speaks Out After Decade Of Silence

Prominent Putin Critic Dies At 77
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WATCH: Marina Salye has been a periodic thorn in Vladimir Putin's side for nearly two decades. Salye resurfaced again this week, telling RFE/RL's Russian Service in an interview that she went into hiding 10 years ago because she feared for her life.

PSKOV OBLAST, Russia -- Marina Salye has been a small but persistent thorn in Vladimir Putin's side for nearly two decades.

As a local lawmaker in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, she pushed for Putin's resignation as the city's deputy mayor after implicating him in a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme. Years later, as Putin was assuming the presidency in early 2000, Salye made international headlines when she revived those allegations, documenting them with material from her legislative investigation.

And then, suddenly, she went silent, disappearing from public view and retiring to a remote house in the country.

Salye resurfaced again this week, telling RFE/RL's Russian Service in an interview at her modest dacha in Russia's western Pskov Oblast that she went into hiding 10 years ago because she feared for her life.

"I have everything in my files," Salye says, adding that she thought to herself, "'They're going to kill me.' [My sister] Natasha was very frightened about this."

'Metals For Food'

A fierce, feisty, and plain-speaking veteran of the perestroika-era democracy movement, Salye, who is now 75 years old, began her investigation into Putin back in 1992, when St. Petersburg was reeling from the economic shocks of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Food production had completely broken down, store shelves were empty, rationing was in effect, and there were legitimate fears of widespread hunger in Russia's second city, where memories of the Nazi blockade of the city in World War II were still strongly felt.

Marina Salye speaks at the ninth congress of Russian Federation People's Deputies in Moscow, March 1, 1993.
As deputy mayor in charge of foreign investment and trade, Putin came up with a scheme to ship $122 million in raw materials, including rare and precious metals, abroad in exchange for food. To carry out the plan, Putin signed deals with 19 companies to act as middlemen. Salye says the deals looked shady from the start, and in the end did nothing to alleviate the food shortage:

"Agreements were concluded with God knows what kind of companies," Salye says. "These companies were clearly set up for temporary, one-off purposes. And licenses were given to these companies by the St. Petersburg Committee for External Economic Relations, which was headed by Putin. Either he or his deputy signed the licenses. They had no right to give out those licenses. The metals then were shipped abroad. And the food never arrived."

Somebody clearly got rich off the scheme. And a famished city grew hungrier, and lost tens of millions of dollars in the process.

At the time, Salye chaired a committee in the local legislature responsible for food distribution, leading friends and allies to affectionately refer to her as "Baba Yeda," or "the Food Lady." When she got wind of what was soon dubbed the "metals-for-food scandal," she launched an investigation that concluded Putin acted illegally and called for his ouster.

A Rising Star

But Putin was neither fired nor prosecuted. The outcry eventually fizzled out, and Putin's career flourished. He took a series of jobs in President Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin, and was named head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 1998. In August 1999, Yeltsin appointed Putin as prime minister -- and anointed him as his chosen successor to the presidency.

The St. Petersburg corruption allegations were long forgotten by this time. But just one day before Yeltsin would shock the world by resigning the presidency on New Year's Eve -- catapulting Putin into the Kremlin -- a journalist came knocking on Salye's door.

"A correspondent from NTV came to my office on December 30 and started asking me questions about the [metals-for-food] case," Salye says. "This was December 30, 1999. And on December 31, when Yeltsin made his announcement, I understood what was going on."

At the time, NTV was a privately owned television station and a staunch opponent of Putin. They aired a report about the eight-year-old scandal featuring their interview with Salye. Soon thereafter, foreign journalists began calling on her. Suddenly, Salye recalls, her once-obscure investigation into Russia's newly minted head of state had won a global audience.

"After this I became a world media star," Salye says. "It was very serious. After New Year's and throughout January, people from the world's leading media organizations were hounding me."

A Frightening Sight

But with the exposure came danger. Salye says she was never directly threatened. And she denied widespread rumors that she received an ominous telegram from Putin wishing her "good health and the opportunity to use it."

Salye says, however, that she decided she needed to lie low after receiving a fright while visiting a colleague, State Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, with whom she was hoping to forge a political alliance in the early part of 2000.

"We were going to cooperate politically. I always had good relations with Sergei Nikolayevich," Salye says. "When I came to his office, I saw a person there who I didn't want to see anytime, anyplace, under any circumstances. I'm not going to reveal his name. But I then understood it was time to go. And Sergei Nikolayevich was soon killed."

Yushenkov, who later would investigate a suspicious series of apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities in the autumn of 1999, was shot and killed in April 2003. Critics allege that the bombings, which the Kremlin blamed on Chechen rebels, were used by the Kremlin as a pretext to invade the rebel region.

Salye would not elaborate on why the unidentified person she saw in Yushenkov's office frightened her so much. But it has been enough to cause her to remain sequestered in a remote village in the Pskov region for the past 10 years.

RFE/RL correspondent Brian Whitmore contributed to this report from Prague

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