Russian investigators say ooze of corruption taints even vice president

August 19, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Charges of official corruption reached sensational levels in Russia yesterday as government investigators accused Vice President Alexander Rutskoi of having a suspicious Swiss bank account.

Adding yet more drama to their assertions, the officials said that Russia's top prosecutor was overheard plotting the assassination of a lawyer leading the corruption investigation and that he should resign.

And they said they had uncovered a vast and corrupt financial empire, protected by government officials, that was created to help the Communist Party spirit its boundless wealth out of the country.

"You should understand," said Andrei Makarov, a prominent lawyer leading the corruption investigations, "that this is a level of corruption which we have never reached previously. This is only possible because it was protected by the law enforcement system."

Though the investigators were appointed by President Boris N. Yeltsin, they asserted their own political neutrality. They conceded, however, that charges of corruption have become the favorite ammunition in the war being waged by Mr. Yeltsin and the hard-line Russian Parliament.

"There are two political groups waging a fierce fight using all available means," Mr. Makarov said. "Now, one such means is corruption, which both factions are tossing like a hot potato to their adversaries, as if fearing to have their arms burnt."

He said the five-member commission had been careful to avoid politics.

"It's not that we have no political convictions," he said. "It means that it makes no difference to us whether a swindler is from our camp or theirs."

With yesterday's report, the upper hand goes to Mr. Yeltsin. The targets were two of Mr. Yeltsin's more combative political opponents, Mr. Rutskoi and Valentin Stepankov, the nation's chief prosecutor, the Russian equivalent of the U.S. attorney general.

In May, Mr. Rutskoi appeared to have the advantage after he said he had "suitcases" full of evidence incriminating two of Mr. Yeltsin's close aides, Mikhail Poltoranin, the former information minister, and Vladimir Shumeiko, vice premier.

Yesterday, the anti-corruption commission members said that they had found no proof of those charges.

"The investigation is now completed," said Alexei Ilyushenko, a member of the commission, "and I must say that a mass of arguments cited by the vice president were not corroborated."

The commission accused Mr. Stepankov of impeding corruption investigations. They accused him of discussing assassinating Mr. Makarov because he was becoming "too curious" about shady business deals.

"I heard a tape in which the prosecutor was discussing a plan of murdering me," said Mr. Makarov. "I think no one will fail to recognize Valentin Stepankov's voice."

Mr. Makarov seemed particularly indignant that he heard the tape on his birthday, July 22. He turned 39.

Yuri Kalmykov, Russian minister of justice and chairman of the the five-member anti-corruption commission, said Mr. Stepankov should resign or be fired by Parliament. He said the commission would ask the Constitutional Court to investigate Mr. Rutskoi.

The vice president could be impeached if the court finds he has broken the law.

Other charges, commission members said, were being pursued but were difficult while Mr. Stepankov remained in office. Evidence, they said, would be turned over to the Moscow city prosecutor, who does not work for Mr. Stepankov.

"Our assumption is that the prosecutor-general's office is responsible for complete failure in the struggle against crime," Mr. Kalmykov said.

Mr. Stepankov was traveling outside Moscow yesterday and could not be reached for comment, but Mr. Rutskoi ridiculed the charges.

"In what kind of country can a committee of rascals make such declarations?" he said in Parliament.

The commission charged that corrupt officials had sent millions of dollars out of the country through fraudulent foreign trade companies.

"What's most horrifying," Mr. Makarov said, "is it's turning out that we are waging a struggle not just against individual corrupt officials; it's becoming clear we've touched a system."

The average Russian, accustomed to bribery and corruption at every turn, forced to pay if he wants a driver's license or to get a passport in timely fashion, appeared to react with more weariness than horror at yesterday's charges.

With the possible outcomes of the charges unclear, Russians could be certain of only one thing yesterday: Mr. Yeltsin was absolutely right when he said, just a few days ago, that September would be a "super-combative" month.

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