Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 201

Something very much resembling a purge or house-cleaning of Yeltsin-era top government officials appears to be underway. The Prosecutor General’s Office, which recently launched several criminal probes into corruption within the Railways Ministry (MPS) (see the Monitor, October 23), has reportedly similarly targeted the Emergency Situations Ministry (MChS), the State Customs Committee and the State Fisheries Committee. Various media reported yesterday that Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, who also heads the pro-Kremlin Unity party, had tendered his resignation. These reports were denied by both Shoigu’s office and the minister himself, who conjectured that the rumor was started by unnamed forces aiming to prevent the creation of a new party on the basis of Unity, Fatherland and All-Russia. The latter two political movements are headed by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, respectively, and operate as a coalition. Late last month, Unity and Fatherland held individual party congresses and their second joint congress, during which they voted in favor of merging and bringing All-Russia into the union. This trio, provisionally to be named United Russia, has set its founding congress for December 1 (Russian agencies, October 24, 27). Top officials of Unity, Fatherland-All Russia and Russia’s Regions, a pro-Kremlin faction in the State Duma, have all denounced what they called the “slander campaign” against Shoigu (Radio Ekho Moskvy, Radio Mayak, October 31).

The rumors of Shoigu’s resignation were preceded by a report in the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda that Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov had compiled a “black list” of government officials who were being investigated for, among other things, using their official positions to engage in “commercial activities.” Among those on the alleged blacklist, the newspaper reported, were Railways Minister Nikolai Aksenenko, who was questioned at the Prosecutor General’s Office on October 19, and an unidentified deputy to Shoigu (Komsomolskaya Pravda, October 30). Like the probe into Aksenenko and the MPS, the probe of Shoigu and the MChS apparently grew out of investigations carried out by the Audit Chamber, the state agency tasked with monitoring how federal budget funds are spent. Reporting on this is unclear. An Audit Chamber official said yesterday that no criminal cases had been launched on the basis of Audit Chamber monitoring in the last year and a half. But, earlier this week, the chamber’s chief, Sergei Stepashin, had said that his agency had launched a “a very serious audit” of the Emergency Situations Ministry to determine how funds earmarked for rebuilding the Yakutian town of Lensk, which was washed away by floods this past spring, had been spent (, October 31; Vremya Novostei, November 1).

The rumors that Shoigu’s career is under threat are given additional credence by the fact that he went to Moscow’s Central Clinical Hospital on Tuesday (October 30) with blood pressure/heart problems. This is a time-honored tactic of an official who is in trouble, given that, as a newspaper noted today, Russia’s Labor Code states that officials cannot be fired while they are in a hospital or on vacation. Aksenenko, for example, went on vacation last month following his interrogation by prosecutors, and another top official, Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, reportedly left unexpectedly for vacation yesterday after the Audit Chamber began looking into his ministry’s activities, sparking speculation that he, too, is in political trouble (Moscow Times, November 1).

While some observers said they doubted that the various probes were linked or part of an overall strategy–Moskovsky Komsomolets’ Aleksandr Budberg, for example, speculated that the attacks on Shoigu had been orchestrated by rivals within the Unity-Fatherland-All Russia constellation–it seems unlikely they are either coincidental or the result of a sudden burning desire on the part of top law enforcement officials to apply the law equally to all. Indeed, various media, including outlets controlled by the tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who himself became the object of an arrest warrant recently (see the Monitor, October 23), reported this week that Igor Sechin, President Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff and a long-time Putin associate, was orchestrating the criminal cases as a means of reshuffling the government (Moscow Times, November 1; Kommersant, TV-6,, October 31).

What the MPS and MChS have in common is that they are virtual “states within the state” headed by Yeltsin-era officials. The Emergency Situations Ministry, for example, has a total of 70,000 employees and has its own armed forces–including “spetznaz” special forces–Foreign Affairs Ministry and a financial-industrial group. Sergei Shoigu has run the ministry since Yeltsin decreed it into existence back in 1991, and, as an observer once put it, enjoys something close to “cult of personality” within the ministry (see the Monitor, November 28, 2000). What is more, Shoigu is popular among Russians generally: Polls taken in September and last month by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion found that Shoigu was the second most trusted Russian political figure, second to Putin and ahead of Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov (Interfax, October 31). While Shoigu trailed far behind the president in this poll in terms of trust (47 percent versus 19 percent), Putin and/or members of his inner circle may view Shoigu as a threat, despite the emergency minister’s declarations of loyalty to the throne and the fact that he heads the pro-Putin Unity party.

More generally, Putin may have decided that given the good performance of the Russian economy and the post-September 11 good will toward Russia in the West, now is an auspicious time to begin a real purge of Yeltsin-era officials.