Yeltsin sacks corruption investigator

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The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN has smashed a rare moment of Russian unity by suspending his chief prosecutor - the same man who is investigating corruption in the Kremlin's innermost circle.

There was a howl of political protest yesterday after the President signed a decree removing Yuri Skuratov, and ordered officials to seal his office and cut his Kremlin hot-line.

Mr Yeltsin justified the move - which the State Duma (parliament) condemned as unconstitutional - by arguing he had the legal right temporarily to suspend Mr Skuratov pending the outcome of a criminal inquiry into his activities, launched yesterday.

Key incriminating evidence is a video, now being sold on the Moscow black market, in which the prosecutor cavorts naked with two prostitutes - seamy scenes, which the Kremlin says suggest compromising links with the underworld.

But Mr Yeltsin's opponents allege the move amounts to an attempt by the Kremlin to block the investigation into allegations that members of the President's inner circle took bribes in return for granting lucrative building contracts to a Swiss construction company. The firm, Mabetex, denies wrongdoing.

The Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, said the prosecutor had documents showing that "a corrupt group" has gathered around Mr Yeltsin. He described the suspension as a "flagrant violation of the constitution" and alleged the prosecutor had a list of 20 names holding $40bn (pounds 25bn) in Swiss bank accounts.

By moving anew to oust the law officer, Mr Yeltsin has entered a new fight with parliament as last month its upper house rejected the President's attempts to get rid of the prosecutor. Mr Skuratov said yesterday his removal was illegal.

The Kremlin's decision to provoke new political turmoil caused astonishment in Moscow as it was enjoying a moment of relative political peace brought about by the common outrage over the Nato attacks on Yugoslavia.

There was speculation that the move was not Mr Yeltsin's initiative but that of his powerful younger daughter and adviser, Tatyana. Reports have circulated in Moscow that the prosecutor, working jointly with Swiss authorities, was showing an interest in her activities.

Underlying the issue is a power struggle between the Kremlin and its opponents, possibly including the Prime Minister and potential presidential contender, Yevgeny Primakov. Among the suspected players in this affair is the industrial magnate Boris Berezovsky, once a Kremlin powerbroker whom Mr Primakov seems determined to bring down.

The magnate's activities have also been under investigation by the prosecutor's office. Investigators recently raided two businesses linked to the tycoon, saying they were examining allegations that he was linked to a spying operation gathering intelligence on the Kremlin.

Yesterday, at Russia's behest, Mr Berezovsky - who has denied any wrongdoing - was sacked as secretary to the Commonwealth of Independent States, the alliance of former Soviet republics.