Russia's parliament defies Yeltsin

Upper house refuses to accept his dismissal of prosecutor Skuratov

October 14, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- In an apparent miscalculation, the Kremlin demanded a showdown vote over Russia's chief prosecutor in the upper house of parliament yesterday and was handed an embarrassing defeat.

The Federation Council, as the upper house is known, refused to accept President Boris N. Yeltsin's dismissal of Yuri Skuratov, who began to make trouble for the president and his inner circle a year ago with the opening of an investigation into kickbacks by Mabetex, a Swiss construction company.

The vote shows that regional leaders who sit on the council are not interested in smothering the blossoming corruption scandals and that the Unity political bloc set up by Yeltsin's associates for the December elections is short on influence.

"It looks like the administration miscalculated once again," said Sergei Kalmykov of the Polity Foundation. "It's a humiliating defeat."

It was the third time that the Federation Council had defied the administration over the firing of the prosecutor.

Skuratov, who offered his resignation in February then withdrew it, remains in limbo despite the vote. Under criminal investigation by his own department, he has been suspended since spring from the post of prosecutor general.

While he awaits a court ruling that he hopes will return him to his job, he has started talking about all sorts of things that he learned during his investigation -- about credit cards issued to the Yeltsin family, about insider sales of government debt before the ruble collapsed a year ago, about diversion of dollars from the International Monetary Fund into offshore accounts.

He has suffered through counterattacks: a video that purports to show him cavorting, undressed, with two young women; a search of his apartment and country home by police; and allegations that he received 14 expensively tailored suits from Mabetex, the company he was investigating. He treats all of this as so far beneath contempt that he won't comment on it.

He gave an emotional speech to parliament yesterday, his voice tinged with anger, ostensibly about the need to put law enforcement above politics. But with him it looked personal.

"Anything is possible in our country, any provocation, any blackmail, any violation of law if this is demanded by the interests of the Kremlin inner circle," he said. "In principle, it is not about me. They have just decided to make short shrift of me.

"It is clear to you that the question of my resignation really revolves around the personal interest of the president and his family."

Skuratov was never exactly a crusading prosecutor. Throughout his tenure, not one political murder was solved, and no significant corruption cases were successfully prosecuted. Money launderers and racketeers went about their business with impunity.

Now he and the corruption scandals have landed in the forefront of the parliamentary election campaign.

"The point is that all this struggle around Skuratov's dismissal has assumed a symbolic character," said Viktor Kuvaldin of the Gorbachev Foundation. "Today's decision will have a strong impact on the arrangement of political forces in the country."

The Federation Council is made up of regional leaders, the sort of solid bosses upon whom the Kremlin has relied in the past to outweigh the hotheads in the State Duma, parliament's powerful lower house.

When one group of local chiefs joined forces with Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov and Yevgeny M. Primakov, a former prime minister, in an anti-Kremlin election bloc, Yeltsin's people countered with Unity, culled from regions that rely on federal money to survive.

Unity has publicity -- and lots of money -- going for it, so no one can count it out. But in its home base, the Federation Council, it could muster only 52 votes against Skuratov, with 98 refusing to accept his dismissal.

The Kremlin had apparently decided to force the issue as a means of getting rid of Skuratov before a court ruling that might be in his favor. But the vote was by secret ballot, another miscalculation by the Yeltsin administration. Members were free to vote as they wished.

An official Kremlin statement said later that Skuratov "has compromised the high office of prosecutor and tried to turn the prosecutor's office into a tool of the political fight."

The prosecutor called the vote by the council "a triumph of justice."

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