MOSCOW — Russia's justice minister was suspended Sunday in a phenomenon new to post-Soviet politics: a sex scandal.
"We will suspend him temporarily from his duties," Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin said after the publication of grainy stills from a videotape purporting to show Justice Minister Valentin A. Kovalev in a sauna surrounded by naked women.
The stills were published last week in the sensational monthly Top Secret. Kovalev requested his own suspension Saturday, saying he wanted to clear his name.
"Kovalev denies everything," the prime minister said. "But he is a lawyer; he knows how to defend himself. Let him prove it is not true."
Top Secret said the video was shot through a keyhole at the nightclub hangout of the notorious Solntsevo crime gang in September 1995.
The video came to light during a recent police search of the country house of a Moscow banker in connection with embezzlement charges. The banker, Arkady Angelevich, also had an ID card saying he was an advisor to Kovalev. The Interior Ministry has denied it leaked the video.
Security around Russian ministers is usually so tight that their personal lives are not displayed to the general public, making sleaze revelations virtually unheard of.
But Russia's leading investigative journalist, Alexander Minkin, suggested that the bizarre sex scandal was no more than a way of easing the conservative Kovalev out of office.
Kovalev, a stodgy 53-year-old former Communist, is one of the few remaining hard-line ministers in President Boris N. Yeltsin's Cabinet. Most of his tough-guy peers, appointed during an anti-democratic backlash around the time Russia began its war with separatists in Chechnya at the end of 1994, have been edged out of government since Yeltsin was reelected last summer on a strong liberal ticket.
The government is now dominated by young, go-getting reformists under First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly B. Chubais. Kovalev has few, if any, political protectors left in high places.
"It is crystal clear that somebody, most likely the Chubais group, wants Kovalev out of his office as soon as possible," Minkin said.
But whether unleashing the new concept of a sex scandal on a Russian public that is weary of politics and expects nothing but the worst from its leaders will achieve the suggested goal of getting rid of Kovalev remains to be seen.
"It isn't a criminal offense in itself to be caught taking a bath with five naked women," Minkin said. "Russia is not like the United States, where if you are caught red-handed doing something that most righteous people think underhanded, your career is over. In Russia, people couldn't care less.
"What worries our people most is who paid for it, because it is obvious that if you have five top-class [prostitutes] in your Jacuzzi, you can't pay for them with a [minister's] official salary. Someone else must have paid for them. . . . What did he have to do to return the favor? What was the payoff?"