Russian minister suspended over bath-house film scandal al

Russia's Justice Minister, Valentin Kovalyov, was yesterday temporarily removed from office while an inquiry is held into a secretly shot videotape which purports to show him with two naked women in a Mafia-frequented banya (baths).

The decision, announced by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, follows a request by the minister himself to be suspended in order to clear his name.

The scandal - a rival to the worst of British Tory sleaze - exploded into the public domain after the monthly tabloid newspaper Sovershenno Sekretno (Top Secret) published poor-quality and grainy snaps taken from the video, parts of which were also broadcast on Russian television. These show a silver-haired man in steam-shrouded baths with two large, apparently naked, women; the video was allegedly filmed in secret in September 1995, eight months after the 55-year-old minister was appointed to his post.

The minister has protested his innocence, and appears to believe he is the victim of a sophisticated plot. "Everyone knows very well that modern technology, including computer technologies, make it possible to put a person into any environment or situation," he said, after being recalled suddenly from a trip to Sweden.

The acquisition of kompromat - compromising material - was one of the enthusiasms of the old KGB. But by KGB standards, the evidence against Mr Kovalyov is by no means high grade. The black-and-white pictures are poor and could have been tampered with. Moreover, mixed banyas are common among Russians and the intense heat ensures that the banya has an entirely asexual ambience.

Perhaps the more damning claim against Mr Kovalyov is that the nightclub sauna in which he was allegedly frolicking was a Mafia haunt. Sovershenno Sekretno alleged that the videotape was taken from the safe in the country home of a 35-year-old banker, Arkady Angelevich, arrested this year on suspicion of stealing $7m (pounds 4.3m).

Whether the pictures are authentic or not, the affair is an embarrassment for the Yeltsin administration, which is supposed to have embarked on a campaign to clean up corruption in high and low places. In asking to be suspended from his job to fight the sleaze allegations, Mr Kovalyov said he wanted to preserve the reputation of the Russian government. But for many here, it is too late for that.

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