MOSCOW — Russian authorities said Friday that a third major company is being investigated for the handling of its privatization during the 1990s, as President Vladimir V. Putin announced his determination to prosecute tycoons who broke the law during the last decade.
Audit Chamber Chairman Sergei V. Stepashin said an investigation was underway into the privatization of energy giant UES, in part examining claims that the sale of shares to foreigners in 1992 was illegal. UES is headed by Anatoly B. Chubais, the architect of Russia's privatization program.
In an interview Friday with the daily Izvestia, Putin made no effort to dampen speculation that he was confronting the so-called oligarchs, the powerful business leaders who got fabulously wealthy through privatization deals.
"How could they not feel nervous?" he asked, saying too many businesspeople found themselves on the wrong side of the law after the state loosened its control on the economy following the fall of communism in 1991.
The move against UES follows the filing of criminal charges last month against media mogul Vladimir A. Gusinsky, who is accused of embezzlement in another privatization deal.
In addition, the Moscow prosecutor's office last month filed a court action against Norilsk Nickel, the country's largest metal company, seeking to reverse its privatization, a move that sent shudders through the country's stock market.
In recent days, tax police also have opened criminal cases against two other major businesses, petroleum company Lukoil and car manufacturer Avtovaz.
One unanswered question is whether all of Russia's big tycoons will face tough legal action, or whether some powerful businesspeople with close Kremlin ties--such as Roman A. Abramovich and Boris A. Berezovsky--will benefit as competitors are dealt with by the authorities. Berezovsky and Abramovich are part of the Kremlin elite known as "The Family."
Already, some politicians have expressed fears about the influence of Abramovich, who controls Sibneft oil company and a large chunk of the country's aluminum industry.
Friday's action against UES was perceived by many as part of Putin's drive against at least some of the oligarchs.
"They came for Chubais," ran the banner headline in the daily Kommersant, which is owned by Berezovsky. The paper twice ran similar headlines earlier this week about other oligarchs: Vladimir V. Kadannikov, Avtovaz chairman and a former deputy prime minister, and Vagit Alekperov, head of Lukoil.
The irregularities alleged in the UES privatization include:
* In 1992, foreigners who bought 15.2% of shares in the original deal didn't register them and might not have been legally allowed to buy them.
* In 1998, foreigners already owned about 30% of the company's shares, though the parliament passed a law that year restricting foreign ownership to 25%. The state still is the majority owner of the company.
Chubais said the actions against various businesspeople amounted to a "massive political wave."
"Of course suits can and must be brought against businessmen," Chubais said. "But what is happening today looks like a political wave, a political action."
Putin complained in the Izvestia interview that tax avoidance and other violations of the law by business leaders became "massive and universally accepted" in the 1990s.
"That's why we began taking measures designed to sharply improve the climate of entrepreneurship in the country," he said.
Western analysts generally support moves to take on the oligarchs, saying they have stood in the way of positive economic change. However, some of the analysts fear moves to reverse privatization efforts in an economy once fully dominated by the state.
After the Moscow prosecutor began legal action to reverse the privatization of Norilsk Nickel, the national prosecutor's office wrote to Vladimir O. Potanin, president of the group that owns the nickel company, saying it would drop the action if he paid $140 million to compensate the state for losses during the privatization.