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The NATO air campaign against the Milosevic regime displaced the Skuratov Affair and the surrounding political intrigue as the hot topic of conversation in Russia. For now, Kosovo overshadows `Kto Kovo', although interest in the machinations of the power elite in Moscow certainly has not diminished. The reality of Russia's impotence was captured in a newspaper article that pointedly observed the following:

The Americans dropped bombs on Yugoslavia and we threw eggs at their Embassy.

Opinion polls show that Russian citizens clearly disapprove of the bombing, but the myriad of domestic problems facing Russia certainly take precedence over any anti-Western hysteria that might be provoked by NATO actions or nationalist politicians. There is little reason to assume that NATO policy in Yugoslavia will have a direct or lasting political relevance for Russian domestic politics. Anti-Western sentiment will certainly not figure prominently in this year's Duma elections, let alone the presidential elections scheduled for the year 2000.

The war that will have the greatest effect upon the population of the Russian Federation was not that war fought in the air and territory of the former Yugoslavia, but rather in Moscow's corridors of power. The Skuratov Affair, or `sex, lies and videotape Russian-style', has focused a harsh light upon the dark forces diligently at work behind the political scene in the Russian capital.

The scandal

On 17 March, a five-minute excerpt of a videotape showing Russia's embattled Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov in bed with two naked women was shown on state-owned RTR television. The video was distributed to a number of media outlets, part of a botched plan to force the Prosecutor General out of his job. This was a clear attempt to discredit Skuratov by the Kremlin, which apparently gave its approval to their allies at RTR to air Skuratov's extramarital performance. Cassettes of Skuratov's sexual antics are currently for sale on Moscow street comers, and portions of the tape have even appeared on the internet. Although Komsomolskaya Pravda reported that the Office of the Prosecutor-General had instigated legal proceedings against RTR for broadcasting a videotape `of a man who looks similar to Skuratov' in bed with two women, it is generally believed that Skuratov himself was the star of the show. In his address to the Duma on 7 April, Skuratov refused to confirm or deny whether he was the man in the televised videotape. Due to a law on the media that allows the broadcast of secretly made materials, as well as the likelihood that the videotape was aired with the Kremlin's permission, it is doubtful that such a case would proceed very far. However, Yeltsin's allies at RTR might yet find themselves faced with legal proceedings, this time in defence of the network's financial dealings, which are rumored to be dubious. Not surprisingly, some law-enforcement sources have been quoted as saying that the issue of RTR's finances would likely be the subject of future investigations. In a comical development, the euphemism used by the Russian media to describe the star of the video, `a man resembling Yuri Skuratov', has now become a popular catch phrase in Russia. In a recent edition of the satirical program Kukly, a Russian version of England's Spitting Image, a confused Yeltsin puppet comes face to face with a more coherent, energetic version of himself, and asks `Who are you?' The younger Yeltsin replies that he is `a man who resembles a president'. In response to the follow-up question from the older Yeltsin, `Then who am I?', the younger Yeltsin puppet answers, `You're a man who doesn't'.

In general, the liberal press has only superficially described Skuratov's misdeed, without going too far back into the events that preceded the sexual scandal. The communist press, as one might expect, has looked deeper into the affair, suggesting the involvement of more than just the actors who appear on screen. In terms of Skuratov's behavior, it was left to Nezavisimaya Gazeta to give an objective accounting of Skuratov's moral position, which it found to be extremely weak. It argued that in principle, while adultery is not against the law, adultery committed by the Prosecutor-General becomes an element of power for whoever has access to the compromising evidence. In such a case the independence of the Prosecutor's office is undermined, and the Prosecutor has no alternative but to resign.

Komsomolskaya Pravda posed a number of rhetorical questions about the entire episode, in addition to the obvious question about whether it was right for the married Prosecutor-General to have sex with two women (reputed to be prostitutes) in a secret apartment. Crucial questions raised include whether it is right to videotape the sexual habits of political figures, and whether Skuratov should have been threatened with the airing of this recording at the Federation Council and on state television. Furthermore, the newspaper asked whether it was right for a state official to take back his own letter of resignation. According to the daily, the answer to all these questions is an obvious and resounding `no.'

After months of an uneasy truce, the Russian political scene once again is dominated by open hostility between the denizens of the Kremlin and a loose grouping of anti-Yeltsin forces that are now very much on the warpath. The question of the day is whether the Skuratov affair will unite the disparate forces that seek to depose Russia's barely functional, but still autocratic, President. While ill-health makes it anyone's guess whether Yeltsin will survive the final months of his Presidency physically, recent events might very well have inflicted a mortal blow to him politically. While Yeltsin's popularity has been susceptible to severe swings over the years, frequent illnesses, incoherent ramblings and political scandals have increasingly tarnished his image. Yeltsin reportedly has taken to wearing a large pair of politburo-style glasses, but so rarely is he at work these days that he does not often get to use them. One wonders if his corrected vision will help him focus upon the harsh reality that has crept up around him -- that much of his power has shifted to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and to the Communist-dominated parliament. According to a VTSIOM (All-Russian Centre for Public Opinion) poll conducted on 27-30 March, Yeltsin's approval rating has sunk to 6 per cent while 92 per cent of the respondents said that they do not support the President. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's approval rating was 64 per cent, with 25 per cent expressing nonsupport for him. Such sobering figures should give Yeltsin an idea of the current state of play in Moscow.

For all intents and purposes, the Yeltsin era ended last August with the devaluation of the rouble, the default on short-term foreign debt, and the fall of the Kiriyenko Government. The inability of the President to force the reappointment of his old Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin through the Duma was evidence that his grip upon the legislative branch of government had faltered. The most recent manifestation of the battles to succeed (or even replace) the ailing Boris Yeltsin centre upon the sexual escapades and aborted resignation of Russia's 46-year-old Prosecutor-General Yury Skuratov. The breathtaking ineptitude with which the Kremlin has handled the Skuratov Affair is simply the latest evidence that the President's grip on power is now in terminal decline.

Of course, the Russian sex scandals differ greatly from America's recent moral crusade, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Both the Skuratov and Kovalyov affairs have a certain machismo about them that many Western observers might miss. Rather than having their politicians passively indulge in oral sex, Russian scandals feature videotaped politicians having sex for hours, always with more than one woman. American-style political correctness has yet to find a very receptive audience in Russian political culture. For many Russians, the scene of the Prosecutor-General in bed with two women (the aesthetic quality of the performance aside) is a fairly unremarkable, though amusing, political development characteristic of a political climate in which dirty tricks are as prominent as policy initiatives. Ambivalence about such matters is not uncommon. Another late-March VTSIOM poll found that while 58 per cent of the Russian respondents felt that Skuratov's sexual misconduct adventure were reason enough to dismiss him, when asked if he should keep his position under the current circumstances, the answer was `yes,' by a margin of 2 to 1 (49 per cent to 24 per cent). In this sense Russians are not unlike the majority of their American counterparts, who strongly disapprove of Clinton's infidelities, but who also do not think that he should be impeached for them.

In fact, it is both the making of the tape and the way it has been used that have caused significant discussion and debate. Rumors of the existence of this compromising material first surfaced last summer. Various stories have made the rounds, including accusations that the videotaping had been organised by the Swiss company Mabetex in order to head off Skuratov's investigation of its allegedly corrupt relations with members of Yeltsin's inner circle. According to a number of sources, the videotape was bought by Boris Berezovsky, and it was he who supplied it to the Kremlin. He supposedly directed and exploited the pornographic show in revenge for being removed from the position of Executive Secretary of the CIS. It is no accident, therefore, that those most vehemently insisting upon the resignation the Prosecutor-General are those most vulnerable to Skuratov's investigations. Those investigations' include cases being prepared against Aeroflot, the car giant AvtoVAZ, and the Atoll guard agency, all part of Berezovsky's empire. Berezovsky, the former `First Friend' who at times has functioned as the Yeltsin clan's financial adviser, and fellow oligarch Alexander Smolensky, now face arrest warrants as a result of the dubious financial practices of their business empires. The cause of social justice aside, the arrest warrants for Berezovsky and Smolensky will also improve the political position of the Prime Minister. Primakov will benefit from the political support he will reap by demonstrating that his Government is finally serious in its anti-corruption campaign, as well as by eliminating a rival power broker in Moscow's corridors of power.

Many argue that the first act in this political drama began earlier this year, when Skuratov launched an offensive against corruption in the upper echelons of the Kremlin, the Central Bank, and the government itself. The Prosecutor-General was brazen enough to raid the offices of the powerful and well-connected Russian financial oligarch Boris Berezovsky. On 1 February, Skuratov unexpectedly quit his post and was rushed to the hospital with heart trouble. The very next day President Yeltsin made one of his increasingly rare forays into the Kremlin specifically to accept Mr Skuratov's resignation. Allegedly, Presidential Staff Chief Nikolay Bordyuzha used the pornographic videotape to blackmail Skuratov into submitting his resignation, and Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroyev was brought on board to persuade him to resign quietly. Skuratov originally resigned for health reasons, the standard excuse for Kremlin dismissals. Sometime about 16 March, however, Skuratov changed his mind, taking back his resignation. After a three-week absence Skuratov reappeared in his office and resumed work, just as suddenly as he had resigned. The Kremlin demanded that the Prosecutor-General cease working, calling upon the Federation Council to affirm Skuratov's resignation.

The first part of Bordyuzha's blackmail threat was then put into play; the Federation Council was shown the videotape of the Prosecutor-General's extramarital exploits just prior to its vote concerning his dismissal. In a rambling speech, Skuratov attempted to convince regional leaders normally loyal to the Kremlin that his resignation was written under pressure from `dark forces', which included Berezovsky, as well as corrupt top officials. In a surprising rebuke to Yeltsin, the traditionally docile upper chamber refused to accept Skuratov's resignation. The one-sided vote, 142-6 with three abstentions, was meant to send a message to the autocratic President about the shifting balance of power in Moscow. Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev and Samara Governor Konstantin Titov, both Federation Council members, have been extremely critical of the President over this matter. Tuleev called Yeltsin's second attempt to oust the Prosecutor-General unconstitutional, alleging that the real reason for the dismissal is that he is attacking corruption seriously. Titov told Interfax that if Skuratov is somehow dismissed, certain corruption cases will be placed under control of the Federation Council, and the new Prosecutor-General will make a full investigation of all evidence of corruption.

Of course, another reason that this august body declined to make Skuratov's personal affairs an issue worthy of resignation is that Russia's regional leaders have no shortage of skeletons in their collective closets. No doubt they expect the same consideration from the Prosecutor-General's office should they appear in their own cinematic features, or should similarly compromising material arise. First and foremost, however, this was a serious political blow against Yeltsin. It is a disturbing development for the President that the Federation Council has declared its independence, joining the ever-hostile Duma as a counterweight to the power of the executive branch. The Kremlin's response was to create a commission authorised to investigate alleged actions by the Prosecutor-General that `bring disgrace to the honor of a prosecutor', as well as to ascertain violations of the Prosecutor's oath. However, outside of Yeltsin's immediate circle, there is little support for a continuation of the investigation into the morality of Skuratov. Nevertheless, in early April Yeltsin upped the ante by instigating a criminal case relating to Skuratov's alleged sexual antics, which served as the basis for his controversial decree ordering his suspension. The Prosecutor-General's office was sealed, his phone lines cut off, and his state bodyguard withdrawn. Never one to miss an opportunity to criticise the government, lead communist dullard and perennial presidential contender Gennadi Zyuganov even threatened to mobilise mass protests in support of Skuratov in case the Prosecutor-General is driven from his job.

The initial operation to neutralise Skuratov was managed, or rather mismanaged, by Nikolai Bordyuzha, then head of the Presidential Administration. He most likely did this under orders from the Kremlin inner circle, namely Tatyana Dyachenko and Valentin Yumashev, former presidential chief-of-staff and still a key insider. Consequently, within days of the two screenings of Skuratov's carnal adventures Bordyuzha was fired from all his posts. Bordyuzha's dismissal was officially termed a `transfer to another job', which is Kremlin-speak for the firing or demotion of officials, who are then unlikely to be offered another post. According to Argumenty i Fakty, Yeltsin was suspicious of the favorable attitude of Duma communists toward his chief-of-staff, and according to some, was unhappy with his unwillingness to be involved in preparing a decree to ban the Communist Party. Bordyuzha's bungled attempts to force the Prosecutor-General out of office meant that his head was on the scapegoat block.

So now Skuratov, though allegedly suspended from his duties, continues his crusade against Kremlin corruption. He is the new darling of the obstreperous Duma, assured of support in the Federation Council (the only body that can remove him), with the full power of the Prosecutor's Office at his disposal. The public airing of his pornographic exploits means that a compromise between Skuratov and the Kremlin is now highly unlikely. Indeed, the morning after cinematic stardom was thrust upon him, he mentioned allegations against Mabetex in public for the first time. Headed by a Kosovo Albanian named Bezdet Pakolli, the Lugano-based Mabetex was hired to perform high-cost construction jobs in Moscow and elsewhere. The Prosecutor-General continues to cooperate with Swiss prosecutors who are investigating Mabetex concerning bribes to Kremlin insiders to obtain lucrative government contracts to renovate the Kremlin and other official government buildings in Moscow. His investigations have also come uncomfortably close to First Daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, another reason for Yeltsin's attempts to fire him. On 23 March investigators from Skuratov's office sealed off several Kremlin offices and removed documents in a worsening of the battle between the Kremlin and the Prosecutor-General. Also under siege is the Kremlin administration's `property management' department, the personal fiefdom of Yeltsin crony Pavel Borodin. Novye Izvestiya had earlier reported that Borodin was among those behind the attempt to force Skuratov out of office because he had uncovered Borodin's questionable dealings with Mabetex. The head of the Kremlin's administrative department, Borodin manages the Kremlin's multi-billion dollar empire of country residences, aircraft, hotels and other properties. An investigation of Borodin's department has been under way by Skuratov's office for some time. Whether Mabetex paid large bribes to Borodin and other Kremlin insiders to obtain expensive government contracts will likely become an important issue in Russian politics over the upcoming months. A recent statement in Sovetskaya Rossiya might well have hit upon a theme for the battle that is shaping up in Moscow:

Whatever Skuratov's sins, they are incomparable with the corrupt bacchanalia in the Kremlin.

While the President has not been directly incriminated in the Prosecutor-General's investigations, his closest allies and family members might come under indictment. Kremlin watchers have noted that the position of Tatyana Dyachenko has somewhat weakened recently, both because of the Skuratov affair and her connection with certain bank accounts in Switzerland. In his 7 April statement to the Duma Skuratov disappointed his audience (and the wider public) by refusing to provide details about pending criminal investigations into the activities of some top Kremlin officials. Nevertheless, Kremlin insiders are far from safe. Of particular concern might be the recent raid by the Prosecutor-General's Office on businessman Sergey Lisovsky's apartment, office, and dacha. Incriminating materials are said to have been seized on well-known officials, including the members of the inner circle such as Yumashev, Sysuyev, Savostyanov, and even Tatyana Dyachenko. The documents allegedly include intercepts of telephone conversations, analytical memoranda on targeted individuals and their family members, and information regarding bank accounts and property. Indeed it is striking to see how rapidly the shift in power away from the ailing President, and from his inner circle (Dyachenko, Yumashev, and Berezovsky), has progressed. As events unfold, Dyachenko and crew must wonder if anyone would have dared to act so brazenly as to seize Kremlin documents when either Korzhakov or Chubais were in residence as Kremlin gatekeeper. Clearly the answer is no, partially because their boss was stronger then politically, but also partially because these men were adept at protecting Yeltsin's power base. Ironically, it was the current inner circle that engineered the removal of both Korzhakov and Chubais, and in so doing, may have brought about their own downfall.

The bottom line is that Skuratov is being used as a pawn by some very powerful forces, and the future course of Russian politics is at stake. In fact, many analysts believe that the anti-corruption drive launched by Skuratov was ordered by the Prime Minister. Regardless, below the surface of this confusing chain of events is a power struggle between President Yeltsin and Primakov, which the Prime Minister seems to be winning. In office since last September, Primakov's political stature has risen sharply, despite a failing economy, an unpredictable parliament, and a meddlesome, autocratic, semi-invalid President. While Primakov claims that he has no presidential aspirations, he has quietly filled the state apparatus with `his people'. As investigators get closer to the graft and sleaze inside the Kremlin, the war heats up. The removal of Skuratov, like all things in Moscow, is a complex issue. The failure of Yeltsin's continuing attempts to force Skuratov out of office merely calls greater attention to his growing political weakness, a fact certainly not lost on his rivals. After all, former Justice Minister Valentin Kovalyov was forced out of office for his banya antics in a bathhouse belonging to the Solntsevo criminal group. While the mafia element might have rendered Kovalyov's dismissal more politically expedient, Yeltsin's inability to replicate this move for a seemingly similar offense is seen by some as a reflection of his diminished power. Which brings us back to the main question, which has yet to be explained: why did the cautious Skuratov suddenly decide to launch the Mabetex affair, thereby threatening Yeltsin's inner circle, and daring them to release the pornographic tape of him that he knew they possessed? The answers to these questions lie at the heart of the ongoing struggle for power in Moscow.
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Publication:Arena Magazine
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Date:Oct 1, 1999

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