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Kremlin Official Suspended Amid a Sex Scandal

Russia: Decree comes after Yuri I. Skuratov says he will name higher-ups who illegally transferred money to Swiss accounts.

April 03, 1999|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — After he was caught on video cavorting with two prostitutes, the political survival of Russia's prosecutor general, Yuri I. Skuratov, was always in doubt--but he made sure he clawed a few of his enemies on his way out, inflicting some nasty scratches on President Boris N. Yeltsin's hide.

Skuratov has been involved in a high-stakes battle with Yeltsin, who was humiliated last month when the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, rebuffed his efforts to get rid of the prosecutor.

But when a lowly Moscow district prosecutor tracked down one of the prostitutes in the Skuratov sex video, extracting enough details to launch a criminal investigation of the prosecutor general, Yeltsin had the ammunition he needed.

The ax came down Friday, hours after Skuratov appeared on Russian television announcing that he had the names of some "fairly well-known" Russian officials who had illegally transferred dirty money to Swiss bank accounts. He said the information came from the Swiss attorney general, Carla del Ponte, who was ready to cooperate with Russia in the return of the money.

A decree suspending Skuratov came out at the unusually early time of 8 a.m. A criminal case against Skuratov was opened even earlier, at 2 a.m.

Skuratov immediately experienced the sudden withdrawal of power in all its forms. His official phone went dead. His team of 30 guards suddenly disappeared, replaced by strange faces. He was no longer welcome in his own office.

Kremlin officials denied having received Skuratov's letter detailing the names of officials who allegedly sent funds illegally to Switzerland, but the timing of Yeltsin's decree created damaging perceptions.

The Duma, the lower house of parliament, condemned Yeltsin's order as unconstitutional and invited Skuratov to speak before it next week, when he will have a chance to name the names he only hinted at Thursday night on television.

But Yeltsin apparently hopes to deny the Federation Council--which has the final say on the appointment and dismissal of the prosecutor--the moral grounds to keep Skuratov in office now that he is under investigation for abuse of office. Vladimir V. Putin, who heads the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, said Skuratov's "party" with the prostitutes was paid for by people involved in criminal cases.

The struggle over the prosecutor is part of a wider Kremlin power game as Russia's elites jostle for position in the run-up to elections later this year and to next year's presidential election.

At the heart of the struggle is the growing rivalry between Yeltsin and his prime minister, Yevgeny M. Primakov, whose national credibility is much higher than the president's--and who has vowed to fight corruption and crime.

Having suspended Skuratov just as the prosecutor claimed to be moving in on high-level corruption, Yeltsin risks fueling rumors in the Russian media that he or his family has something to hide.

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