Why Maryland furniture worth $399 has split Moscow

Russia/ anger over aid swap

WHEN a delegation of Russian officials arrived at Andrews Airforce Base near Washington for a flight home, they had to make a decision: which of two sets of boxes awaiting delivery to Moscow should they take back in the luggage hold of their official Ilyushin-62 aircraft?

On that much, at least, accounts of what happened earlier this month at the VIP section of the airfield concur.

What was in the boxes, though, is far more contentious, a question that has prompted much bewilderment, statements in the Russian parliament and a great deal of interest in a cut-price American furniture store.

According to the office of Ivan Rybkin, chairman of the State Duma, Russia's parliament, and the delegation leader, it was a choice between US military uniforms and vital office equipment for the legislature's new building. The needs of Russia's fledgling democracy prevailed.

The Russian press, however, offers a different and better documented version: one set of cartons contained medicine, toys and clothes for invalid children and orphans, the other a glass-topped patio table, four metal chairs and a garden parasol.

The summer furniture won. So that it could be rushed home to catch the first sun of the year at the dacha, 106 crates of humanitarian aid provided by an American charity, Cradle of Hope, and already loaded on the Russian government plane, were hastily unpacked and dumped on the tarmac.

"This is a very unattractive affair. I don't know what was going through their heads. The aid shipment is still sitting in Washington waiting for another plane to bring it over to Russia," said Viktor Parshutkin, spokesman for the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee, which helps arrange delivery of medicine and other help from abroad.

The saga will hardly topple the government - the furniture is said to have been bought on sale at the Best Store in Rockville, Maryland, for only $399 plus tax. The suggestion that Mr Rybkin may have chosen comfort at the dacha over aid for sick children merely confirms the deep cynicism with which most Russians regard their government.

The loudest expressions of outrage come instead from Mr Rybkin and his spokesman. Russia's nomenklatura may no longer hide beneath the carapace of communism, but it still resents any prying into what it does with the planes, cars, dachas and other privileges bought with public money.

"There was no incident," said Mr Rybkin's spokesman, Dmitri Biryukov. "It hurts that this matter has attracted so much attention when the results of the visit were very good. There would have been no problem with wheelchairs, but why take some old rags on board? That is another matter altogether."

The official junket is hardly a uniquely Russian phenomenon, nor is the purchase of merchandise for personal use by officials while on official trips abroad. More unusual, though, is that Russian officials should find themselves, no matter how briefly, called to account.

After leaving his spokesman to field a barrage of questions for more than a week, Mr Rybkin himself addressed the issue yesterday in parliament: "I have not been in any furniture shop and have not bought any furniture." But he also regretted that government aircraft used by official delegations often carry "cargoes which have nothing in common with the trips".

While anger at official privilege may have galvanised opposition to the Communist Party and helped put Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin, Russia's post-communist lite abuses its position with a brazen gusto that might make even the most self-serving Brezhnev-era barons cringe.

"The communists were quietly corrupt. They worried sometimes about being caught. Now no one is worried. They have nothing to fear. Corruption is worse and more bare-faced," said Igor Golembiovsky, editor-in-chief of Izvestia, the liberal daily newspaper that first delved into Mr Rybkin's priorities at Andrews. "The biggest problem in Russia today is not communism but corruption."

Izvestia published its first report on the case just before Preident Bill Clinton arrived in Moscow for VE Day. Other papers followed.

Mr Biryukov not only denied any wrongdoing by Mr Rybkin but issued a statement accusing the US charity of trying, in effect, to smuggle military uniforms into Russia disguised as humanitarian aid. He said the uniforms were "for distribution among Russian high school students outside Moscow". He also alleged that American secret service agents had recently searched the plane of the Russian Foreign Minister and, because of this, Mr Rybkin was anxious about allowing packages he had not personally inspected on board his own plane.

"This is absurd rubbish," said Mr Parkshutin of the foreign affairs committee. "I have a list here of what is in every box. Why would anyone want to ship military fatigues?" He said Mr Rybkin had been told about the charity consignment before leaving Moscow and had agreed to pick it up on the way home fromJapan and the US.

Also bewildered is Cradle of Hope, which has for years been sending aid to help Russian children with birth defects, many of them abandoned by their parents. "Russian embassy staff and I packed all 106 boxes and I know very well what they contained," charity worker Brigitte Holt told Itar-Tass news agency.

In Mr Yeltsin's Russia, public service and private gain have become so enmeshed that no one really expects a full explanation - even less that any of the officials involved might suffer.

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