Yeltsin's tennis coach, the sports fund and the general who demanded $40m

Russia lacks the resources to expose the latest political scandal, writes Phil Reeves
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The Independent Online
Moscow - Were it happening in the United States, the country would now be rubbing its palms in glee at the prospect of a merciless series of congressional hearings. Politicians would be bankrupting themselves with lawyers' fees, and the media's top sleuths would have already churned out enough newsprint on the subject to wallpaper the World Trade Centre.

But Russia lacks the institutions to winkle out a big scandal with any speed, particularly one which involves a cast of characters who were once among Boris Yeltsin's closest associates. Although this affair involves allegations of attempted murder, embezzlement, and blackmail, the few details that have emerged have dribbled out painstakingly slowly.

At its centre is an organisation called the National Sports Foundation, which was co-founded by Shamil Tarpishchev, who was Mr Yeltsin's tennis coach - in the days when the President was well enough to hit a ball - and also his sports minister.

For several years, Mr Tarpishchev was also one of Mr Yeltsin's best friends, whom the President lauded in his autobiography as a man with whom he had a "real understanding"; this weekend he abruptly fired him. The official explanation was thin on detail; according to Russia's state-run ORT television station, it was because his name had been linked with scandals.

The foundation's activities have been the subject of speculation since December 1993, when Mr Yeltsin signed a decree granting it tax exemptions over the import of alcohol and tobacco. Ostensibly, the idea was to raise money to help sport, but it quickly grew into a multi-million dollar enterprise which exercised a virtual monopoly over the lucrative imported vodka market.

Allegations of foul play were soon flying. Prominent among its accusers was Anatoly Chubais, Russia's former privatisation minister, Mr Yeltsin's chief of staff. Last year he claimed that the tax breaks enjoyed by the fund (and several other veterans' organisations, which had similar privileges) enabled them to withhold $4.2bn (pounds 2.7bn) from Russia's impoverished treasury in 1994 alone. Only a small proportion of this ended up in the hands of sportsmen and veterans, he said.

Although the tax breaks were cancelled last year, the issue has smouldered on, spawning rumours that foundation money was a Kremlin slush fund, which was used to finance Mr Yeltsin's super-slick presidential campaign. On Sunday, there was a new twist when Boris Fyodorov, a former chairman of the fund, alleged that the head of the presidential guard, General Alexander Korzhakov, along with his deputy, had invited him into his Kremlin office and demanded that he give him $40m from its coffers. "They told me, you have stolen so much, now it's time to share," Mr Fyodorov told a current affairs programme on NTV. He also said Mr Tarpishchev, a close ally of General Korzhakov, had demanded money.

The allegations appear to belong to a Kremlin intrigue which is as tangled as any one of the many plots that have peppered its history. Conspiracy theorists are now pondering whether it was related to an incident in June, several weeks before Mr Yeltsin's re-election, when General Korzhakov was dismissed after his guards detained two of the President's top campaign workers as they walked out of the White House in Moscow carrying $500,000 in cash. Since then, he has been working on his plans to become a member of parliament, armed with what he claims is a stack of compromising evidence about the illegal activities of Kremlin officials. He has also forged links with Russia's security chief, Alexander Lebed, who is openly campaigning to be Russia's next president.

Mr Fyodorov's blackmail accusation against General Korzhakov - who was Mr Yeltsin's closest confidant for several years - remains unproven; he denied them when they were mooted earlier this year. One possible alternative explanation was offered by NTV, which linked Mr Fyodorov's allegation with an attempt by Kremlin insiders to scupper Mr Lebed's attempt to raise finance for his bid for power - by discrediting his potential financial backer, General Korzhakov.

But there is also no doubt that Mr Fyodorov has touched a nerve. In June, he was stabbed and shot outside his apartment in what appears to have been an assassination attempt by contract killers. The previous month he was arrested and held for several days on drugs charges, before being sacked from the fund chairmanship. But he was also chairman of a troubled bank, which may have made him a Mafia target.

As the plot thickens, a government prosecutor is reportedly labouring away on the case. The chances that his inquiries will come up with much seem remote. Russia is awash with corruption, and stories of official skulduggery are so commonplace that they are usually greeted with resignation. Russian journalists who have tried to dig out the dirt have suffered threats and even death.

And the badly-equipped crime fighting authorities have more than enough work on their hands; there were 24,000 murders and attempted murders in Russia in the first nine months of 1996, the Interior Minister, Anatoly Kulikov said yesterday. The odds are that this, the Kremlin's answer to Whitewater, will eventually fade away.