Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 63

One of the tasks which President-elect Vladimir Putin has hinted he will undertake–and which a number of observers hope he will make a priority–is to limit or eliminate the political influence of Russia’s powerful “oligarchs.” There are already signs that the oligarchs themselves and other powerful political players are hoping to turn their main rivals into the primary targets of the expected drive to separate powerful business interests from those of the state.

Today, for example, the newspaper Moskovsky komsomolets (M-K), which is sympathetic to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, featured a front page attack on Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, a reputed ally of Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia’s most powerful oligarchs and behind-the-scenes power brokers. The paper claimed that the fake passport which was forced on Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky after he was freed from captivity in Chechnya late last month was forged by the Interior Ministry. M-K published what it said was a copy of a secret Interior Ministry document, dated February 16, requesting a blank passport. That same day, Babitsky’s captors in Chechnya seized his real passport. Babitsky was later arrested and jailed in Makhachkala, Dagestan, after police detained him and found the fake passport. The correspondent was subsequently released and flown to Moscow after Putin, then acting president, said publicly that he had asked Rushailo “to consider more attentively if there is a need to keep Babitsky in custody,” and said that he didn’t “think this [was] necessary” (see the Monitor, February 29). Babitsky was reportedly flown home on Rushailo’s personal Interior Ministry jet.

In its article today, M-K charged that Rushailo took the lead in lying publicly about what had happened to Babitsky, including the claim that the correspondent had been handed over to Chechen rebels in exchange for Russian POWs after being detained by Russian security forces in Chechnya in mid-January. The paper claimed that Babitsky was in fact turned over to members of a pro-Moscow Chechen group–a claim Babitsky himself has made. It should be noted that, like Rushailo, Putin repeatedly claimed that Babitsky had voluntarily gone over to the Chechen rebels.

What was noteworthy about today’s M-K article is that its author, Aleksandr Khinshtein, implied that Rushailo–and, by extension, Berezovsky–played the major role in the actions taken against Babitsky. In an obvious attempt to complicate Rushailo’s relations with the president-elect, Khinshtein repeatedly noted that the Babitsky affair put Putin in an embarrassing position, particularly internationally (Moskovsky komsomolets, March 29). Earlier this year, police unsuccessfully tried to force Khinshtein, who wrote articles in late 1998 and last year attacking Berezovsky and Rushailo, to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. The police claimed that Khinshtein, who was detained last year for traffic violations, had illegally obtained a driver’s license by withholding information about past psychiatric problems. While Khinshtein eventually took the psychiatric test voluntarily and the charges against him were dropped, he laid low following Boris Yeltsin’s New Year’s Eve resignation and Putin’s accession as head of state. His re-emergence follows a warming of relations between Luzhkov and Putin, and might be a sign that attacks on Berezovsky’s interests have been given a green light from the top.