Poles fear Russian vendetta lies behind arrest of ex-Yeltsin aide

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The Independent Online
In one of Russia's most mysterious cases of alleged corruption in high places, a former reformist politician and adviser to President Boris Yeltsin has been arrested in Poland and is awaiting extradition to Russia. Sergei Stankevich, once deputy mayor of Moscow, is accused of taking $10,000 (pounds 6,200) in bribes in 1992 in connection with a Red Square concert he organised.

Mr Stankevich, who speaks English and was often interviewed on British television in the early Nineties, denies the charge and says he earned the money for lectures he gave in Britain. His case has received sympathetic treatment in the Polish media, which have suggested that he may have fallen foul of enemies in Moscow who have decided to smear him and other liberal Russian politicians.

The circumstances of Mr Stankevich's arrest did seem odd. He was arrested in Warsaw on 19 April, less than two weeks after President Yeltsin issued a state decree declaring a long-awaited war on official corruption.

The pro-Yeltsin media seized on the arrest as an example of the excellent early results of the anti-corruption drive. Pictures appeared in the Russian press showing that Mr Stankevich, who was once noted for his youthful, clean-cut looks, had apparently tried to disguise himself by growing a beard.

All this created the impression that the Russian authorities, acting with the help of the Polish police, had netted one of Russia's most wanted men.

Yet, the sum Mr Stankevich is accused of taking is a drop in the ocean compared with the illegal billions of dollars that have washed around Russia in the last decade.

It might it be that Mr Stankevich's enemies decided to nobble him because of his political views, in particular his friendship for Poland, the land of his ancestors.

When serving as Mr Yeltsin's adviser, Mr Stankevich was involved in preparing a presidential visit to Warsaw, during which the Russian leader startled political analysts by suggesting that the Kremlin might not object to Poland's membership of Nato.

After howls of protest from politicians and military leaders in Moscow, Mr Yeltsin hastily retracted. Word then began to go around that Mr Stankevich bore responsibility for instigating the President's blunder.

It was recalled that Mr Stankevich, who came to prominence in 1989 when he was elected as a radical democrat to the Soviet parliament, had been on close terms with several senior figures in Poland's anti-Communist Solidarity movement.

A trained historian, he had also helped to expose the fact that the Soviet secret police had murdered thousands of Polish officers at Katyn forest in 1940, a crime which was long denied by Moscow.

On the other hand, Mr Stankevich was not arrested this month on the mere whim of the Polish police. For two years there had been an international arrest warrant out for him, issued on account of the alleged $10,000 bribe.

A spokesman for the Warsaw prosecutor's office, Zbigniew Rzasa, said Mr Stankevich had insisted after his arrest on being interrogated by Polish state security agents rather than by ordinary policemen. His request was granted, but the purpose behind it remains tantalisingly unclear.

What is known is that, immediately after his arrest, one of Russia's most senior officials, Ivan Rybkin, the secretary of the influential Security Council, paid a visit to Warsaw.

Perhaps his trip had nothing to do with the investigation of Mr Stankevich. But, in the Polish capital, the suspicion still lingers that the case is as much political as criminal in nature.