Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 173

Dmitri Savelev, who was ousted last week as head of the state oil pipeline monopoly Transneft, has charged that Roman Abramovich, head of the Sibneft oil company and a reputed leading member of the Kremlin inner circle, was behind his dismissal. Savelev said that Abramovich had gone so far as to ask him face-to-face to step down “voluntarily,” or face dire consequences–including a criminal case against him, or worse. Savelev said Abramovich did not specify what he meant by the latter (NTV, September 19).

Savelev has refused to recognize the legality of the decision to fire him, made officially by First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksenenko, apparently in collusion with Fuel and Energy Minister Viktor Kaluzhny. Savelev was replaced by Semyon Vainshtok while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in New Zealand for the Asian summit. Savelev’s management team refused to let Vainshtok enter Transneft’s offices, but Interior Ministry special forces forced their way into the offices to install the new chief late last week (see the Monitor, September 17).

Transneft controls access to Russia’s oil pipelines, making it strategically vital and a major cash cow. According to Savelev and others, including former Fuel and Energy Minister Sergei Generalov, Savelev’s removal amounts to an attempt by Sibneft, along with the giant Lukoil (where Vainshtok was an official), to de facto privatize Transneft (Russian agencies, September 20). Others see the move as an attempt by the Kremlin inner circle to gain control of a major cash source in the walk-up to Russia’s scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections.

In his comments to reporters yesterday, Putin was strangely silent about Savelev’s removal, even though it has been viewed widely as a challenge to his authority by Aksenenko, who is reportedly allied with Abramovich, Boris Berezovsky and Kremlin administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin. Putin, for his part, is closely associated with United Energy Systems (UES) chief Anatoly Chubais. Chubais condemned Savelev’s removal, as did the Union of Right-Wing Forces, the electoral coalition which includes Chubais, former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. Putin, Chubais and Voloshin reportedly met to discuss the controversy today, and Voloshin reportedly warned Putin strongly against any “interference” in the decision to remove Savelev (Russian agencies, September 17, 20;, September 20).

The Transneft controversy has put Putin in a very difficult position. As one observer put it, if Putin “bites back,” he will find himself in a “direct conflict with the presidential administration and the Family.” If he remains silent, the Kremlin inner circle will try to convince Yeltsin that Putin is weak and thus unworthy to be his successor (Expert, September 20). And, as former Fuel and Energy Minister Generalov noted, if the change in Transneft’s leadership is allowed to stand, Aksenenko, Voloshin and Abramovich may try to impose their will on other leading monopolies–for example, by removing Chubais from the top position in UES.