Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 8

By Elena Dikun

Kremlin officials awaited President Boris Yeltsin’s annual message to both houses of the Federal Assembly on March 30 with some trepidation. First, it was not clear how Yeltsin would cope with a public appearance, having only recently been he might put aside the smooth script prepared for him and use the platform to voice the idea he has long been obsessed with–shutting down the Communist Party. Informed sources from the president’s administration confirm that in recent months this thought has taken root in Yeltsin’s head. They say that when the president gave the order in late March to dismiss the old “friend of the family,” Security Council Secretary Boris Berezovsky, at the same time he ordered his (now former) chief of staff, Nikolai Bordyuzha, to draw up a decree on the closure of the Communist Party. Furthermore, the president laid down in detail the mechanism for this procedure: All parties would have to reregister, as a result of which only two or three parties loyal to the Kremlin would be licensed to operate. Imagining the irreparable consequences the president’s decision might have, Bordyuzha suffered a sudden heart attack, and ended up in the Central Clinical Hospital for a long stretch.

Happily, however, the day went smoothly. Not taking his eyes off his text, the president gave a lively reading of his message to the Federal Assembly, concentrating mainly on the Balkan war with no word about the Communist Party. The bolt came during the night of April 1-2: Yeltsin issued a decree dismissing Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov from his post in connection with the initiation of criminal proceedings against him for “abuse of power,” and at the same time repeated his request to the Federation Council to remove him from office “for committing an act bringing the honor of the public prosecutor into disrepute.” Despite the fact that the president’s intention to get rid of Skuratov had been public since February 2, Skuratov’s dismissal on April 2 came as a complete surprise, for those party to Kremlin intrigues knew that the president’s team and the prosecutor had come to an agreement to end the matter peacefully.


Recall how the story unfolded. At the beginning of February, Skuratov unexpectedly submitted a letter of resignation, citing a deterioration in his health. Yeltsin signed it forthwith. But it soon came out that Skuratov had been a victim of blackmail. At the start of the year, the Prosecutor General’s Office started working in detail on cases touching on the interests of people in Yeltsin’s immediate circle. They began to look into illegal operations being run by the president’s chief administrator, Pavel Borodin, and the president’s daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, using the Swiss company Mabetex as in intermediary. The prosecutor’s office also brought a case against Aeroflot, whose “shady proprietor” is Boris Berezovsky. The Kremlin’s response was instantaneous. Skuratov was summoned and given an ultimatum to resign. Otherwise a videotape of Skuratov in the company of two call-girls would be released. The prosecutor realized that his “clients” had long tentacles and that resistance was useless.

However, the Federation Council returned the president’s “request” to dismiss Skuratov, causing considerable damage to the reputation of the president himself. The Kremlin demonstrated self-possession in not showing any sign that what had happened was offensive to him as head of state. When asked whether Yeltsin would insist on the public prosecutor’s dismissal, the new head of the president’s administration, Aleksandr Voloshin, answered evasively: “The president used his constitutional right, the Federation Council used theirs. Whether he [Yeltsin] is happy with the public prosecutor or not is a different question altogether.”

However, in backstage conversations Kremlin officials told journalists confidentially to bide their time: In a few days Skuratov would tender his resignation again. One high-ranking member of the president’s administration admitted that “we are having to use rather grubby tactics, but we feel that Skuratov is prepared to compromise.” Moreover, there were rumors that the relevant resignation letter had already been received. At his meeting with the president and the prime minister, directly after the Federation Council session, Skuratov submitted to Yeltsin a letter of regret, ending with the words “I ask you to relieve me of my duties from April 5, 1999.”

In return, Skuratov was promised that he would leave without a scandal. Furthermore, he received top-level permission to solve a number of prominent cases as a parting gesture. After this he was supposed to appear before the Federation Council, thank the president for his assistance in the investigation into particularly important criminal cases and thank the senators for their confidence in him. Then he was to say that his reputation was unfortunately tarnished and that he had decided to leave his post to avoid discrediting the Prosecutor General’s Office. According to the Kremlin officials’ plan, during the intervening period a commission from the Security Council was supposed to carry out some disciplinary work with Skuratov.

At the same time, a large number of people from outside were involved in the “reprimand” process. For example, Minister of Justice Pavel Krasheninnikov called a meeting with three of his predecessors, former Soviet and Russian Justice Ministers Veniamin Yakovlev, Nikolai Fedorov and Sergei Stepashin. For a couple of hours they discussed how they might persuade Skuratov to leave office without a fight. If they could do so, it would save face both for the president and the Federation Council. But then Yeltsin suddenly broke the nonaggression pact unilaterally. So what happened–why did the peace plan fail?


The most likely answer is that the accord’s participants fell prey to mutual suspicion. They did not have confidence in each other’s decency, and–as it turned out–they were right. Skuratov continued to build bridges with his Swiss colleague Carla del Ponte, and–with her help–to look for money hidden abroad by high-ranking Russian officials. For its part, the Kremlin assigned the Federal Security Service (FSB) the task of finding the call-girls with whom Skuratov had been relaxing and get statements from them. Evidently Skuratov found out that dirt was being dug on him. Moreover, he was convinced that the peace treaty was an open secret, and that the Kremlin was not planning to keep quiet about it. This made Skuratov’s position all the more uncertain. The cumulative evidence gave him every reason to think that he was still being blackmailed. On the evening of April 1, the troubled prosecutor appeared on television and announced that he had sent the president a memo giving details of accounts opened in Swiss banks on behalf of high-ranking public officials. At the same time Skuratov asserted that Yeltsin supported his move.

The Kremlin’s reaction to the controversial television interview was swift. An evening working party took place in the president’s administration with the participation of the director of the FSB, Vladimir Putin. After a brief discussion, those taking part in the meeting decided that “the boil should be lanced.” In the words of one Kremlin official, it was no longer a question of the “antics of a man gone who had strayed–it was all much more serious.” Not losing a moment, in the middle of the night Moscow’s deputy prosecutor Vyacheslav Rosinsky was summoned to the Kremlin and was told to bring a criminal case against Skuratov swiftly. (A little later, the case was handed over to the judge advocate general of the Russian Federation). On the morning of 2 April the president’s decree to dismiss the public prosecutor appeared. His office was immediately sealed, his government line cut off and his personal bodyguard removed. Then, on April 6, Skuratov’s February statement–written during the meeting with Yeltsin–was released, dusted off and taken to the Federation Council. Skuratov tried to “clarify the situation” and take his words back, but it was too late. The affair had taken an irreversible turn.


But what was the memo Skuratov sent to Yeltsin? Whose names were on the list? For four days everyone in the Kremlin rushed around madly trying to find Skuratov’s dispatch. Every office and reception room was turned upside-down, cupboards were searched, trash cans were gone through, but to no avail. The absence of the letter only served to heighten tension among the upper echelons. The communist deputy Ilyukhin had already announced that the prosecutor’s list named twenty well-known figures with foreign savings totaling more than 40 billion dollars. Those worried that their names might be on the list was quite large. Thus the number of people whom Skuratov had instantaneously made enemies of quickly exceeded the critical mass: There was nobody left to feel sorry for him.

Towards midday on April 5 the letter signed by Skuratov finally turned up in the Kremlin. The deputy head of the president’s administration, Oleg Sysuev, told journalists that for technical reasons the letter had been held up in the prosecutor’s office, and that Skuratov had not sent any list of names. He had been bluffing. The letter they found contained only a set of measures to repatriate Russian capital. No accounts, no names. But in the interview which caused the public sensation, the public prosecutor was clearly not talking about that letter. To all appearances he meant the paper he had given Yeltsin back on February 18 together with his second resignation letter. We have found out that this was indeed a list of prominent people and their Swiss bank accounts. Informed sources say that when he had acquainted himself with the prosecutor’s list, the president asked Skuratov not to touch a number of people particularly close to him, but promised full cooperation in the investigation into everyone else. Thus the list in which everyone is interested is probably lying in a “special file” in the president’s office. Skuratov naturally made back-up copies and hid them in safe places. But will he dare to publish them now? Speaking in the State Duma on April 7, Skuratov refused to divulge the names of the corrupt officials, saying that he would do so at the inquiry.


Those who initiated Skuratov’s premature dismissal were banking on the fact that no powerful figures would defend him to the bitter end. To their way of thinking, the senators in whose hands Skuratov’s fate lies will not seek to milk the situation dry. The governors sense the limit to which they can push a confrontation with the president. But to be on the safe side, on April 9, the president met with the leaders of the republics which form part of the Russian Federation and asked them not to block Skuratov’s dismissal. They assured him of their loyalty and promised that the Federation Council would vote the “right” way.

Of course–as they gloomily joke in the corridors of the Kremlin–it would have been better had the prosecutor’s wife shot him in a fit of jealousy, but even a living Skuratov is not enough of a threat for all the Russian authorities to fall flat on their faces before him. There is a Cheka man for every prosecutor. During the tussle with Skuratov, FSB chief Vladimir Putin gained a great deal of authority. The Kremlin had liked him before for being the only “power minister” not to fall under Yevgeny Primakov’s influence. But now, when the honor and conscience of the whole of the upper echelons are in his hands, and those Cheka hands do not shake, this man is invaluable. On his appointment as secretary of the Security Council, the FSB director (it has been decided that the two roles will be combined) basically became the protector of all the power structures. Putin is acquiring the status of guardian angel of the Russian elite, and his department on Lyubanka Square is regaining its historical role of the sword of retribution of the “party of power.” Such is the penalty for Skuratov’s antics.

Elena Dikun is a political columnist with “Obshchaya gazeta.”