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Is Moscow graft-busting for real?

A big anticorruption drive is read as just the sound of a Kremlin powerstruggle.

Corruption charges so grave they would bring down any other government have swept though Moscow in the last few weeks.

It began last month when Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov said he would release tens of thousands of petty criminals in order to make room in the prisons for legions of venal officials who, he said, are "plundering Russia and robbing society."

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But then something peculiarly Russian happened: Few people took notice.

Experts dismissed the charges as the usual background noises when a Kremlin power struggle is afoot.

"In the traditional language of Russian politics a corruption charge is not a legal matter but a declaration of war against specific enemies," says Irina Zvegelskaya, an analyst with the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow.

"Listen to the accusations," she says, "and sometimes you can tell who is after what."

Some analysts said the charges were only aimed at overcoming the doubts of Western lenders, including the International Monetary Fund, who have warned the country's hopes of economic revival are sinking into a morass of official graft.

But the only actions taken so far by Mr. Primakov have been to remove a selected few, most notably Boris Berezovsky, the powerful tycoon and executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose federation of 12 former Soviet republics.

Primakov accused Mr. Berezovsky of shady business dealings and spying on top officials.

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Analysts say Primakov's actual goal was to force Berezovsky out of his controlling position in ORT, Russia's public television network.

"Primakov wants to run ORT and Berezovsky is in his way," says Alexander Konovalov, an analyst with the liberal Institute for Strategic Political Assessments in Moscow. "That is not to say Berezovsky isn't covered with dirt, it's just incidental."

Last week a leading liberal lawmaker, Grigory Yavlinsky, and a newspaper owned by Berezovsky fired back, charging that the government itself is rife with corruption. Both suggested that Primakov's two left-wing deputy premiers, Yury Maslyukov and Gennady Kulik, are compromised by corrupt dealings with private business.

"The law enforcement agencies know about corruption ... in the current government. But they don't know what to do with this evidence," wrote the newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "Today in Russia there isn't a single political force, not a single organ of power, that is free of bribe-takers, thieves, and immoral dealers."

By week's end President Boris Yeltsin, though hospitalized with recurring health problems, moved to fire Berezovsky from his post as chief of the CIS. Meanwhile, the Kremlin announced that it would launch an investigation into the allegations against Primakov's Cabinet ministers.

"You might think that a blow has been struck against corruption, that things are being cleaned up. But you would be wrong," says Ms. Zvegelskaya. "This is just the sound of a power struggle heating up."

ANALYSTS say two key deductions can be made: First, Primakov is moving to consolidate his power by removing opponents and replacing them with cronies. Second, President Yeltsin, ailing but still jealously protective of his vast constitutional prerogatives, is preparing to cut Primakov down to size.

"The fundamental problem is that the Yeltsin era is drawing to an end, but we have no stable and reliable method for transferring power," says Viktor Kremeniuk, a political scientist with the Institute of Canada-USA Studies in Moscow.

"[Yeltsin's] absences leave a critical power vacuum which others - just now it's Primakov - try to fill. But the president is not so ill that he can't come roaring back once in awhile to rearrange everything and reestablish his authority," he says.

In the political turmoil following last August's financial collapse, Yeltsin was forced to abandon his own prime ministerial choice, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and take on Primakov, a former Soviet spymaster who enjoys close links with the Communist-led parliament.

Though Primakov routinely protests that he has no presidential ambitions (the next presidential vote is due in 2000), his efforts to stack the bureaucratic deck will be recognized by Yeltsin - or any other Russian - as the classic steps in building a personal power base.

"Of course Primakov is interested in what happens after Yeltsin is gone. He is preparing to take charge," says political analyst Mr. Konovalov. "Yeltsin is not one to accept that. He is a master at shifting the power balance to suit himself."

The impression that the president may soon move against Primakov was strengthened when the Kremlin issued a weekend statement complaining that the government thinks too highly of its own achievements.

This game will be played out and Yeltsin will win - as long as he can muster a burst of good health - says Mr. Kremeniuk, the political scientist.

"It's really a great pity, because Russia desperately needs a genuine war against corruption," he says. "That's what is being lost as the politicians fight for control over the apparatus, accusing each other of all sorts of crimes.

"The crimes are real. This country is bankrupt and dying, and no one is even trying to find a decent way out."

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