Putin sacks anti-corruption prosecutor

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Russia's hawkish and anti-oligarch public prosecutor has unexpectedly been dismissed as more and more heads roll in the drive against corruption that he was supposed to be leading.

Vladimir Ustinov, who oversaw the Kremlin's ruthless campaign against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was abruptly voted out of office by the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, at the behest of President Vladimir Putin.

He had been prosecuting the Kremlin's enemies since 1999 and had made a name for himself by crossing legal swords with three powerful oligarchs: Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man.

His legal bite was as loud as his bark - Mr Gusinsky and Mr Berezovsky were forced to flee the country, while Khodorkovsky is serving an eight-year jail term in a penal colony more than 1,000 miles east of Moscow on charges he believes were politically motivated.

Mr Ustinov's name is closely associated with the 2004 Beslan school siege - he was ultimately responsible for the prosecution of the only surviving terrorist, Nur-Pashi Kulayev, an investigation that left many victims feeling misled.

His sudden dismissal came just days after he had promised a batch of high-profile prosecutions connected with a countrywide anti-corruption drive recently initiated by Mr Putin.

The Russian President said in his state-of-the nation speech last month that corruption was a big problem among civil servants and businesses. "Any official must know that the state will not ignore any ill-gotten gains," he said.

Since then, 14 senior state officials have been fired in connection with an investigation into the Federal Customs Service, including three from the FSB Security Service, the successor organisation to the KGB.

Four senators have effectively been thrown out of the upper house, and the Mayor of Volgograd and a regional governor have been arrested on graft charges.

There is no suggestion that Mr Ustinov himself is corrupt - rather it seems that the Kremlin did not regard the 54-year-old as being up to the job of rooting out corrupt bureaucrats from the top levels of government. Some analysts contend that Mr Ustinov has simply fallen victim to a Kremlin power struggle ahead of President Putin's planned retirement in 2008.

Mr Ustinov is a hawk known for his hard-line, conservative, anti-Western views and is a close ally of Mr Putin's powerful deputy chief-of-staff, Igor Sechin.

The hawks are known as the siloviki - a group of officials with security or military backgrounds who favour tough central rule.

Ahead of the 2008 presidential election they are battling it out with Kremlin liberals to nominate Mr Putin's heir. The siloviki favour Igor Ivanov, the Defence Minister, while the liberals prefer Dmitri Medvedev, the First Deputy Prime Minister. Removing Mr Ustinov from his job and possibly replacing him with a more liberal figure is being seen as a victory for the Medvedev camp. His successor, however, has not been named.

The cloak-and-dagger nature of Mr Ustinov's dismissal adds weight to the theory that his departure was the fruit of behind-the-scenes political intrigue. Some official reports suggested he left of his own will due to health reasons, while others suggested Mr Putin had given him the push as part of a wider reshuffle.

Vladimir Rhyzhkov, an independent MP, doubted Mr Ustinov's removal would change anything for ordinary Russians. "Ustinov always fulfilled the will of the leadership and by doing so proved that Russian prosecutors don't serve the law but the bosses," he said.